Lowry ushers in Raptors' new era by passing torch to Siakam, VanVleet

TORONTO — Kyle Lowry’s journey as a member of the Toronto Raptors has come a long way.

The 33-year-old’s first year saw him on the edge of a mountain that would have thrown him into journeyman status, until a trade cast aside at the 11th hour by New York Knicks owner James Dolan changed the course of his career, and ultimately, a franchise and a league’s history.

Ah yes, the Raptors won a title, and the team now has rings big enough to make sure you don’t forget it. And why should they? Much like Lowry, this has been an organization constantly underrated and obsessively overlooked. And that’s why he’s the perfect man to shepherd the Raptors into the franchise’s next phase.

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Because it’s a chapter that will be written by Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, two players who know what it is to bet on themselves in the face of doubters and battle against the odds. Chants of “overrated” rained down in the Raptors’ final pre-season game against the Brooklyn Nets when the Cameroonian was at the free-throw line, while VanVleet is still looked at as the undrafted guy who keeps overachieving.

Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet form the core of the Raptors' next chapter. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet form the core of the Raptors' next chapter. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Yet there they were, after receiving their freshly minted championship rings, slicing and dicing a New Orleans Pelicans team that was in no mood to just let the champs have all the fun. Siakam started slow, but finished with 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists before fouling out, becoming the first Raptor to put up at least 30-10-5 since Vince Carter back on Dec. 7, 2001. And right alongside him was VanVleet with a career-high 34 of his own to go along with seven assists and five rebounds.

“Confidence, one. Two, just continue to work,” Lowry said when asked about why the continue to grow. “These guys continuously work in the summer time, they’re never satisfied with being this or that. I think they just continue to work on their game, work on their craft, and they enjoy it. They enjoy being good, they have fun being good. It’s pretty cool, pretty awesome to be a good basketball player.”

The fun is evident. They love kicking ass and they’ll do it every which way they can. When Siakam couldn’t get his shot to fall, he was all over the offensive glass, cleaning up his own misses and others’ on six occasions. When the game was in danger of slipping away late in the fourth quarter, it was Siakam who scored five straight, first an and-one finish at the rim before a dive into the paint where Lowry found him for a lay-in. When VanVleet was slowed by an ankle injury right before the end of the third quarter, he promptly came back in the fourth and shifted to playing off the ball and draining a pair of massive 3-pointers, once in regulation to tie the game late and then in overtime to cushion the lead. The duo got to the line 17 times and missed just twice. In the face of opportunity, they never blink.

Somewhere along the way, the Raptors have found the balance between pounding the rock and letting it rip.

No team has had its chances of defending its NBA title written off quicker than the Raptors because no team has had its Finals MVP depart immediately after winning it all. The concerns are fair, but this is a league now about the dynamic duo. On an opening night where Zion Williamson couldn’t accompany Jrue Holiday, where Paul George was a mere spectator to Kawhi Leonard’s heroics, and where Anthony Davis and LeBron James took the L, VanVleet and Siakam showed they’re willing to take on all comers with no regard for the box anyone on the outside wants to place them in. It’s a box Lowry has known all too well and refuses to place his teammates in.

“They’re going to continue to grow,” Lowry said. “Pascal and Freddy, they are the young core, they are the guys who will carry this thing on for however, whenever the time comes but I’m so happy for those guys to go out and perform like they did tonight and we’ll see them grow all year and we’ll continue to see them flourish.”

When asked about what he makes of NBA analysts saying the Raptors going back-to-back is an impossible dream, Lowry simply retorted that him standing where he was — in an NBA press conference room answering questions as a five-time all-star — was an impossible dream. That the Raptors winning the title a year ago was supposed to be an impossible dream. When it was time to make the franchise’s biggest moment a reality in its own building and raise a banner to the rafters, it was Lowry who received his ring last and then addressed the fans. And when it was time to play the game, for the first time in his Raptors Opening Night history, it was his name that was announced last.

With the chief responsibilities of the franchise handed to him on the night, Lowry decided it’s time to come full circle and begin the passing of the torch.

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