‘Nothing else matters’: Lowry, Raptors poised for playoff redemption

NEW YORK — Most players go out of their way to give the impression they don’t have a clue what’s being written about them.

Kyle Lowry isn’t like most players.

The All-Star guard for the Toronto Raptors has no problem admitting he reads plenty, and when it comes to the topic that has come to define Lowry — his lack of playoff success — he’s happy to say something else: Look closer.

“The last couple years, I’ve played great in the playoffs,” Lowry told ESPN before he and the Raptors beat the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on Wednesday night. “This is one thing about the NBA: You play to get to a certain point, and then once you lose, you’re zero. You’re back at the bottom. You have to play to get to that point again, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘Damn. When is it going to come? When is it going to happen?’

“It’s kind of like … it’s a waiting game. But I know Kawhi [Leonard] said these games are practices, but it’s about your team, and it’s about getting work in and continuing to get better as a team. And then in the playoffs, that’s where it matters.

“That’s all that really matters.”

It’s also what has made this 82-game slog especially long, both for himself personally and for the Raptors as a team. For so many reasons — slaying those past playoff demons, reaching heights Toronto hasn’t before and, perhaps most important, convincing Leonard to stay this summer — these are set to be the most important playoffs in franchise history.

And, if Toronto makes the run it is capable of, Lowry’s critics might finally be silenced.

He does, after all, have a point — statistically, he has been better during Toronto’s past three playoff runs (when the Raptors made it to an Eastern Conference finals, followed by back-to-back trips to the East semis) than he was during the prior two (both first-round exits).

So what was the difference?

“I think my body wasn’t prepared,” Lowry said. “I think I was playing so many minutes that I didn’t prepare my body and my mind the right way. After that I learned how to prepare my body and mind because I made the playoffs once, didn’t make it, you forget what it’s about.

“You forget how hard the playoffs actually are, and how much more energy you have to consume and it takes up. That’s what it is. All that stuff.”

That “stuff” includes not just the higher-intensity games, but the disappointment of defeat, and the reactions that come along with it. Lowry, 33, has dealt with plenty of both over the past few years. And, as he prepares to embark on another quest through the playoffs, he’s ready to deal with it again.

“Nothing,” Lowry said, when asked what it will take from him to change people’s minds. “They obviously don’t look at the numbers. … The only way is to win a championship, to be honest.

“But, that’s critics. That’s what they do.”

Lowry has always been one to play with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Liberty Bell in his native Philadelphia. It’s that chip that has fueled him to reach the heights to which his career has ascended over the past few seasons: five All-Star teams, an All-NBA appearance and leading the Raptors to what has been the most successful stretch in franchise history by a country mile.

And that chip is fueled by hearing and reading the way people talk about him, and about his past performances.

“I read it, and they fuel me, but it doesn’t bother me,” Lowry said. “They’ve got their own things. They’re going to say what they want to say, no matter what happens. They’re going to say it no matter what happens.

“I laugh,” he said. “I take it as, ‘OK, cool.’ I hear it. Let me go and just do my job. That’s all I can do. I ain’t gonna go prove them wrong. Whether I prove them right or wrong, they are still going to say whatever. They’re looking at playoff series from my first two years. They don’t look at the last three.”

“It doesn’t matter unless you win it all. To me, I think anybody that hasn’t won it all … if you go to the Finals, they’ll go like, ‘Oh, yeah, you know.’ But if you don’t win it all, they’ll find holes and flaws in everything.”

But no matter how Lowry’s individual performances can be graded over the past few seasons, his team has repeatedly run into the same problem: LeBron James. Three consecutive years, the Raptors have come up against him. Three consecutive years, the Raptors have lost — the past two in sweeps.

Those failures have become a millstone around the collective necks of these Raptors. As Lowry himself said, the postseason eventually becomes a zero-sum game, in which who wins and who loses is all that matters.

And after those playoff failures, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri decided things needed to change. He fired head coach Dwane Casey and replaced him with Nick Nurse. He traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.

Now, Lowry is the last man standing from the trio that propelled the Raptors to those never-before-seen places. And the biggest irony of all of this is that, if the Raptors do make good on their hopes of breaking through in these playoffs, they have so much talent around him — between the arrival of Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol, and the emergence of Pascal Siakam — that he isn’t forced to carry the same burden he was before.

“It’s so different this year,” Nurse told ESPN. “He doesn’t have to get 20 for us, like he did in the past. He’s running the team, he’s the leader of the team, no matter if he scores 4, or 34.

“And he can do both and we can still win. I think it’s gonna be nice to see him play calmly, and confidently. He believes in his team. I think it’s a really good position for him to be in.”

Wednesday night against the Nets was an example of Nurse’s point. Lowry had 10 points, and shot 3-for 11-from the field. But the Raptors didn’t need more than that, because Leonard had 26 points, Siakam had 28 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists and Serge Ibaka scored 23 off the bench in a 115-105 victory.

And when the Nets made a run in the fourth quarter, it was Lowry who hit the key 3-pointer to stop a Brooklyn run and help Toronto close out the game.

It was a perfect encapsulation of the way the Raptors have methodically gone through this entire season, slowly building to this point — when they can take another crack at silencing their critics this spring.

“It’s been professionally approached the whole year,” Lowry said. “We just want to get to the point where we can go play.”

“I would say this: I would say we’ve had a very … non-rocky season,” Nurse said. “We just haven’t really overreacted to anything all year, good or bad, because we knew we were trying to feel a lot of things out.

“The team feels really good about the sense of who they are. And they’re excited to play.”

That goes for Lowry as well. He has battled ankle issues all season, which have kept him on the sideline more often than he’d like — another thing no one will care about, he says. But he’s healthy and playing now, as are the rest of the Raptors’ mainstays. And, as the postseason draws closer, he’s confident this time things will be different.

“We’ve got Kawhi. We’ve got Marc. We’ve got a good team. We’ve got good individuals,” Lowry said. “I think it’s going to be one of those years where we know what we are. We’re not trying … we know what it is [we are after].

“Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters but the trophy.”

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