'Let's get to work': Lowry eager to test rebuilt Raptors in playoffs
Additions of Leonard, Green and Gasol relieves veteran guard of full leadership load
Kyle Lowry pulled the microphone out of its stand, then leaned way back in his chair in a picture of nonchalance before addressing the media on Thursday.
If there's a prevailing theme to this rebuilt Toronto Raptors squad heading into the much-anticipated post-season, it's: been there, done that.
"This group, we have guys that have been there, we've got a couple champions on our team, a couple guys that have been in the Western, Eastern conference finals, guys who've played at high levels," Lowry said. "It's no extra added stress. It's just like 'Yo, let's get to work."'
For five previous NBA post-seasons, Lowry and teammate DeMar DeRozan shouldered the leadership load for the Toronto Raptors. As Lowry and DeRozan went, so did the team.
But neither one had a ton of playoff experience. Lowry had been a backup in two series with Houston. DeRozan's playoff debut was in Toronto's 2014 series against Brooklyn, when the Raptors finally ended a five-year post-season drought. That starting lineup had a combined 24 games of post-season experience.
This season's Raptors squad, which hosts the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of the opening round on Saturday, has been rebuilt with NBA championship aspirations in mind. Gone is DeRozan in favour of Kawhi Leonard — the MVP of the 2014 NBA Finals — and Danny Green. Seen-it-all centre Marc Gasol was added mid-season.
"He's a true professional," Lowry said of the 34-year-old Spaniard. "Marc's a big-time player, man . . . he's been doing this for a long time and I tell ya, he's been truly professional.
"I think that's a theme of our team. We've got some real professionals out here, they know their jobs and know what it takes to win and how to prepare."
If professionalism is partly measured by experience, this collection of Raptors is brimming with it — they boast a combined 502 post-season games between them. Leonard (with 75 post-season appearances) and Green (with 100) both are NBA champions, cornerstones of some of San Antonio's finest post-season moments.
And it's taken some of the load off of Lowry.
"Here's what I think about Kyle: I think his natural instincts are to play tough and lead," coach Nick Nurse said. "Maybe in the past we needed him to do that and also get 20 (points). I think the biggest difference is he's going to play tough and lead because that's who he is, he's competitive — and I think this team can win if he gets four or 34.
"He's going into this knowing he's got to play like an all-star player because he can impact the game in so many ways, which makes him who he is. But I also don't think he feels the entire weight of having to do everything for us."
Lowry's 14.2 points a night are his lowest since the 2012-13 season. But he's doled out a career-best 8.7 assists a night — second in the league behind Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook.
Nurse marvelled at Lowry's ability to change a game in the manner of a minute.
"I've never seen any guy who can make five huge plays in a row, steal a ball, hit a pull-up three, go down and take a charge, come down, drive in and throw one in. Change a whole game in like 90 seconds sometimes," Nurse said. "I expect a good playoff performance from him because I think he's comfortable with this team, he likes this team, he's comfortable in his role with this team."
Lowry said this season has been unlike any other in that he doesn't have to "score 20, I can go out there and assist guys.
"With the leap that Pascal (Siakam) has taken, Kawhi being unbelievable, Marc being such a good player, Danny being who he is, it doesn't matter what I do scoring-wise. My job is to go out there and lead with energy and passion," Lowry said. "We're in a good place and for me individually, it's about the wins and leading the team as best I can and staying emotionally solid, staying even-keeled and keeping everyone else even-keeled."
Leonard's calm demeanour — New York Knicks coach David Fizdale once said Leonard "bleeds anti-freeze" — helps keep the team's emotional pendulum from swinging too wildly.
"He's about as balanced as you can get, emotionally," Nurse said.
And Nurse, who was named head coach after Dwane Casey was fired last off-season, rarely lets his emotions get the best of him. The rookie head coach successfully steered a revolving-door roster that saw 22 different starting lineups, thanks to injuries, trades, and Leonard's load management.
"He's just easy going," said backup guard Fred VanVleet. "I don't know if that's just his personality or if that's the style of coaching he's chosen to adapt. He's been pretty easy going and he picks his spots when he wants to flip out on us. It's been few and far between.
"Sometimes we catch ourselves looking around waiting to get yelled at or waiting for some guidance, and it's not always there. He lets us figure it out."
What does a Nurse "flip out" look like?
"He gets really red in the face, as you can imagine," VanVleet said with a laugh. "His hair flips around a little bit. His voice starts to crack a little bit. He's only got about five minutes of yelling in him before his voice goes out."
The No. 2-seeded Raptors (58-24) went 2-2 against the Magic this season, splitting the contests in both venues. The Magic (42-40) got hot down the stretch to secure the No. 7 seed.
The two teams met in the first round of the post-season in 2008, but obviously looked nothing like they do now. The Magic won the series 4-1.
The Raptors are making their sixth consecutive playoff appearance, and are gunning to go one series better than 2015-16 when they got past Indiana and Miami before losing 4-2 to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Orlando is making its first playoff appearance since 2012.
Game 2 is Tuesday in Toronto, then the series heads to Orlando for Game 3 on April 19 and Game 4 on April 21.