Kyle Lowry and the Raptors are ready to prove why they aren't the same old Raptors

WASHINGTON — Kyle Lowry left town with a smile this time. Lowry wasn’t focused on how so many of the postseason ghosts that haunt him and the Toronto Raptors were formed here, three years ago, against these Washington Wizards. The last time he was in a close-out game in the building now known as Capital One Arena, Lowry was frustrated by a bad back that contributed to an even more miserable effort and led to the Raptors getting swept out of the first round. Anger had consumed so much of him that at one point during that humiliating exit, Lowry attempted to punt a chair and stormed out of a huddle.

“I kicked the [expletive] out of that chair,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports with a grin.

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But on Friday night, those chairs on the visitors’ bench provided calm and comfort instead of stress for Lowry and his backcourt mate/slap-stick comedy partner DeMar DeRozan. The two were seated when the Raptors determined that it was time to put an end to the Wizards’ uneven season, letting the league’s best bench build a lead. Then, when it was time to close, a fresh Lowry — long criticized for failing to show up in the most pressure-packed moments of the playoffs — darted past his beleaguered opponents for layup after layup to lead his team to a 102-92 victory.

“I don’t think about that series from years ago. I try not to. But it’s not like redemption, it’s just a step in that journey,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports. “I’m a different player. I’m an older player. I’m more mature. I understand, you’re going to have ups and downs, trials and tribulations in this game. And people are going to always question you. But I know who I am. I know what I want to do.”

Lowry also understands what the Raptors want to accomplish and getting past the Wizards was only the first step. The Raptors have undergone a few incarnations since Paul Pierce trolled them to that defeat in 2015 — Lowry, DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas are all that remain from that squad — but the latest one has forced the rest of the league to take notice, even if all of the doubts won’t be erased until they can go further. If 59 wins weren’t enough, finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference still leads to distrust, and if a convincing defeat of a talented but fickle Wizards team on the road doesn’t change perceptions, all Toronto can do is keep playing — and winning — until skepticism drifts into silence.

“I think we don’t worry about other people,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports. “We don’t worry about outsiders. We worry about what’s inside us. Everybody is always questioning us. Everyone has their opinions and their entitled to it. We don’t listen to them.”

Kyle Lowry scored 24 points on efficient 9-of-15 shooting Friday night. (AP)
Kyle Lowry scored 24 points on efficient 9-of-15 shooting Friday night. (AP)

Stars rule in the postseason, but the Raptors are trying a different experiment after general manager Masai Ujiri resisted the urge to abandon the coach and the duo that has been responsible for the best era in franchise history. Ujiri stuck with Dwane Casey, who showed the openness and flexibility to change an offensive scheme — an over-reliance on his two best players — that wasn’t working when it counted. And he retained DeRozan and Lowry with exorbitant contracts in consecutive seasons, only to have them buy into a “culture reset” that initially frightened Lowry.

Instead of responding to panic, Ujiri exhibited calm and engineered a rebuild from within — by finding gems in the draft (Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright) and sneaking off with another talent that went undrafted (Fred VanVleet). That group comprises a second unit that makes Toronto more dangerous than in previous years. VanVleet’s absence in all but three minutes in the first five games of this series with a right shoulder injury disrupted their depth advantage over the Wizards. But his return solidified how the Raptors will continue to go about their business. Casey isn’t going to force-feed his All-Stars and, aside from a lapse in Game 4, Lowry and DeRozan have accepted the change.

“It was a tough adjustment for both of us in the beginning,” DeRozan said. “I’d be lying if I said it was a cakewalk, coming off a year where we were successful at a lot of things. We understood we’ve got to be able to accept change for the better. Once we got through training camp, preseason, and got a little bit more comfortable with it, we started to see where this thing can go and we put that confidence we had in ourselves into our bench and it paid off. All year, they did it. We gave them the trust. Even if we had off nights, we trusted them and we’re here to where we can play the last quarter of a game with our bench and be perfectly fine.”

This series featured two teams that have taken much different paths since their first postseason meeting. The Raptors have used that loss and subsequent losses as motivation to improve and become a respected power. The Wizards, however, have grown stagnant, and in many ways, taken a step backward. While fortunate enough to find two stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and a third complementary piece in Otto Porter — who missed Game 6 with a leg injury — the Wizards haven’t built enough around them to ascend higher. Wall and Beal tried to do everything in Game 6 and faded. Lowry and DeRozan trusted the depth and cohesion that got them here and were rewarded with a win that didn’t force them to exert any unnecessary energy.

In the past two postseasons, the Raptors’ primary offense has been not being able to defeat LeBron James, but no Eastern Conference team has been able to do that since the 2010 Boston Celtics. There is little shame in not toppling the greatest player of this generation, and they might get their chance in a second-round rematch, if James is able to lead his wobbly Cleveland Cavaliers to a Game 7 win against the scrappy Indiana Pacers. Toronto doesn’t have a preference for a second-round matchup, but it is fully aware that LeBron is still LeBron.

As he left the arena, having buried the first of what he hopes are many postseason demons, Lowry was at ease. He won’t put more pressure on himself, choosing to rely on the positive energy of the present over the negative past. More challenging work remains, but Lowry doesn’t believe he has to prove anything to anyone. He doesn’t feel he has to prove anything to anyone. “Got a great job. Got two kids. Got a wife. I’m happy and I wake up everyday and play basketball for a living. I like my life,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports, while adding that he also likes his team. “I feel like we’re a completely different team, for everything, than the teams before. We’re very tight. All the teams we’ve had, we’ve been tight, but we have all the confidence in the team, and the bench has the confidence to just go out and play.”

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