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Bruce Arthur: Raptors still need Lowry with end game in sight

Bruce Arthur: Raptors still need Lowry with end game in sight
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In the NBA, Kyle Lowry started in Memphis. He was a late first-round pick, short and squat and stubborn, looking for a place he could be loved. He got hurt; the Grizzlies drafted Mike Conley fourth overall. Kyle was traded in Marc Gasol’s rookie year.

Then it didn’t work out for long in Houston, and it nearly didn’t in Toronto, and when the trade deadline passed Thursday night and the Raptors had acquired Gasol, team president Masai Ujiri was asked whether Lowry’s reported availability on the trade market might cloud the point guard’s mind.

Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry, who turns 33 next month, has this year and next left on a contract he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to sign.  (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

“No,” said Ujiri. “I had a very good conversation with Kyle, and rumours are rumours, to be honest. And Kyle was aware. We had a very good conversion and I see no issues, honestly, with him. Zero. We’re good, and I think his mind is focused on this run.

“Obviously he had little battles with his back and he’s trying to get back to where he was before, and I think maybe we should take time and acknowledge that from when we came here, and this is all credit to him … there was almost a trade with New York (in 2013), and for him to accomplish being a five-time all-star, I think, is a hell of an accomplishment on his part, and the work he put into the game.

“This is who we are now, after the trade deadline, outside of (signing players who have taken) buyouts (from other teams). This is your team, and I think he believes that.”

It sounded, more than anything, like a mending of fences. The conversation happened Monday; according to a source Lowry was told he would not be traded. There had been no traction on talks involving the Grizzlies and point guard Conley; Lowry was staying where he was, on a team hoping to accomplish great things.

If the fences were truly mended, then it’s to the good. Lowry has been distant since the DeMar DeRozan trade last summer, acting out in his characteristic passive-aggressive ways. He refused to answer questions about the trade at the USA Basketball summer camp in late July. He didn’t call Kawhi Leonard in the summer after the trade, or answer calls or texts from new coach Nick Nurse, or Ujiri. He came to camp and said, basically, that he came to work.

And when Rachel Nichols came to town as part of an ESPN full-court press in December — and with Leonard not making himself available to the visitors, putting Lowry in the spotlight — Lowry said he felt “betrayed, because (DeRozan) felt betrayed,” and asked to assess his relationship with Ujiri said, “he’s the president of basketball operations, and that’s it. I mean, I come in and do my job. He does his job, and I do my job.”

It wouldn’t matter if he had a great year. So if they have come to a detente, it is necessary. Because the addition of Gasol should give this team extra fuel to be what they keep saying they want to be. The Spanish veteran really wanted to come to Toronto — as first reported by ESPN’s Bobby Marks, he waived the $1.2-million U.S. trade kicker he was owed, saving the team some of that luxury tax bill — and should benefit from not having to carry as much organizational weight at age 34 as he had to lug around in Memphis.

He is less of a rim protector but is still a defensive masher, and still the best big-man passer who doesn’t play in Denver. Gasol’s scoring game is declining fastest, but the hope is he can relieve the pressure on Leonard and Lowry, because when Toronto’s offence stagnates, having a confident big man who looks to create could ease the traffic.

But the Raptors still need Kyle. Go back to what Ujiri closed with: “This is your team, and I think he believes that.”

Is it? Everything is being done with Leonard’s pending free agency in mind, whether he stays or goes. Leonard is the one given concessions, treated with the deference due certain superstars. Pascal Siakam is the future all-star who dropped a cool 33 and 14 in Atlanta Thursday night. Fred VanVleet is the rock, pure stability.

And Lowry, who turns 33 next month, has this year and next left on a contract he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to sign, back in 2017. But this team needs him. It needs him to find his shot again; he hasn’t made half his shots in a game since that heart-stopping win at Golden State Dec. 12, and has shot 29 per cent in losses. His troublesome back remains a concern. The margins between the best teams in the East are matchup-based and performance-based, and they’re not big. This team can’t beat Philadelphia or Milwaukee or Boston if Lowry flops. He’s too important.

Since he was young, one thing about Kyle Lowry is that he needs you to believe in him, and then he’s in. Then he’s at his best. But it’s becoming clear this marriage has a year and a half left on it, maybe less, and everybody knows it. Lowry has come a long way to get here. At the end of last year’s shorter-than-expected playoff run he said, “I still had more to give.” Now’s his chance.
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