Six years and two months ago, Kyle Lowry turned his head to the ground, torpedoed through the space between two defenders, rose from the restricted circle and unfurled the floater that could have won the game. Stumbling to the floor, all Lowry could do was watch as Paul Pierce, with the force and authority of a man who felt he was just plainly better than his opponent, spiked the ball, putting an end to the most exciting regular season in Raptors history. Lowry's back hit the ground, and all around him, the Brooklyn Nets — including the man who, later, would declare the Raptors just didn't have "it" — celebrated.
A few months before that, Lowry was on the trade block. He thought Toronto was another in a series of pit stops, like Houston or Memphis, where he was both misunderstood and refused to understand things. If Raptors president Masai Ujiri hadn't swindled the New York Knicks one too many times, he also would have called Madison Square Garden home. But thanks to a well-timed winning streak and the bruised ego of one James Dolan, Lowry stayed — and on Thursday, the Toronto Raptors became champions of the world.
Prior to their trading for Kawhi Leonard, it was so easy to consider those Raptors a fixed entity. But after every successive failure, Kyle Lowry shed a little more weight, turning into a portrait of immaculate professionalism and health. Along the way, the Raptors did, too. Greivis Vasquez became Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. Terrence Ross became Serge Ibaka. Patrick Patterson, PJ Tucker and Bismack Biyombo walked in and out of the tunnel. The Air Canada Center became the Scotiabank Arena (unfortunately) and then, of course, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas became Leonard and Marc Gasol.
That team and this team bear little resemblance outside of Lowry, who grew from malcontent to winner, who took every humiliation on the chin, from "it" to LeBronto, to going viral for his low playoff scoring outputs, who was there for all the heartache, who ran into every brick wall, whether it was of the Pierce or LeBron variety, and channelled it today, leaving — for the first time in his career — nothing to chance, delivering his finest playoff performance (26 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and three steals) and closing out the Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
"I'm still kind of in this moment of just like, 'Is this real yet?'" Lowry said at the podium, drenched in champagne he doesn't drink. "And for me, at the end of the day, I work extremely hard on my game, I work extremely hard on myself, and I am extremely hard on myself. I'm happy to be able to say I'm a champion and it's been a long time coming."
"I don't take it for granted at all," he added. "I know how hard it's been, how hard it is to get here. It takes some luck also. And it takes some purified professionals just to go out there and keep going and working and trying to get it done. I'm happy to be a part of that fraternity now to say I'm a champion."
Everyone knows about Lowry the hustler, the conniving edge-seeker who does all the things you don't see on the box score. He boxes out 7-footers, pushes the ball on every make, tries to poke the ball out from behind the opposing rebounder’s hand every time, just so it might work once.
But this was different.
Lowry scored the Raptors’ first 11 points, drilling quick, contested threes over the likes of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. He was assertive, hunting shots instead of marginal edges.
Early in the first quarter, the Raptors accumulated a turnover and two misses against the Warriors’ makeshift zone defense. After watching his team pass the ball side to side and gain no traction, Raptors coach Nick Nurse took an exasperated sigh, shook his head and signaled for Lowry, who had spent just 89 seconds on the bench, to line up at the scorers table. Lowry immediately flared to the corner and nailed a triple, stopping a 7-0 run that started when he left the game. Then he snuck a pick-and-roll pocket pass to Ibaka in transition.
"I took what the game was going to give me, but I wanted to be aggressive. I look back at every game we've played and that we've won, I've shot double-figure times. And I was more aggressive. The games, I think besides Game 1, but other games, all the other games we won, I was more aggressive offensively, makes or misses."
This was Lowry realizing he was better. This was Lowry with liberty, unafraid to make mistakes, stepping into the role he spent six years grooming himself for. The Warriors shut Leonard, the natural aggressor, out and dared Lowry to work against his nature. It's a play he’s seen so many times. One imagines that this late in the game, Lowry got sick of being so easily read. Adjustments in deep playoff runs flip teams inside-out. Become what they think you can't be or perish. Turn your weaknesses into strengths.
Lowry has always thrived at making the little things amount to big things, working around the edges of the game, but he has never liked to stamp himself in the middle of the action, in the role of the hero carrying the scoring burden. On Thursday, he did, and became an NBA champion.
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