KYLE LOWRY KEY TO RAPTORS’ LONG-TERM SUC­CESS.

DY­NAMIC POINT GUARD IS TEAM’S KEY PLAYER, NOW AND FOR THE FU­TURE

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - SCOTT STINSON sstin­son@post­media.com

Ma­sai Ujiri told a Kyle Lowry story re­cently that I hadn’t heard be­fore.

The Toronto Raptors pres­i­dent was on a panel at a con­fer­ence in Bos­ton, along­side the gen­eral man­agers of the Cleve­land Cava­liers and the Golden State War­riors, and the sub­ject turned to lead­er­ship.

Ujiri re­called a night a cou­ple sea­sons ago, when the Raptors were newly as­cen­dant. The night Lowry passed to Landry Fields.

I asked Ujiri about it again this week. Fields, you may re­call, was the free agent guard who came to Toronto and couldn’t shoot. He lit­er­ally could not: a nerve is­sue in his right arm plagued him for years. He would play a few min­utes a night and make the odd layup, but that was about it.

“It was a re­ally tough time he went through,” Ujiri says. “But he re­mained an un­be­liev­able team­mate. All this time, he’s still stay­ing pos­i­tive with the team.”

For one rea­son or an­other, there came a night at the Air Canada Cen­tre where Fields had to draw in for ex­tra work. The Raptors were trail­ing the Or­lando Magic by eight points in the third quar­ter and they started a run that closed the gap. The build­ing was rock­ing, “and Kyle does this un­be­liev­able cross­over, and the crowd was go­ing nuts,” Ujiri re­calls.

And then Lowry dished to the open man. Landry Fields, the guy who never shot. “You could al­most tell, ev­ery­body thought he was go­ing to miss,” Ujiri says.

Fields hit the shot, from 23 feet. The arena ex­ploded and Lowry was hap­pier than any­one. “You could see Kyle’s emo­tion,” Ujiri says. He had watched his team­mate suf­fer and work and not com­plain and fi­nally, just for a brief in­stance, he had been the hero. Lowry was ec­static. The shot opened up a five-point lead. The Raptors didn’t trail again in the game. It was the only three-poin­ter that Fields would make over his last two sea­sons in Toronto.

“It was an un­der­rated lit­tle thing,” Ujiri says now. “But it was a good lead­er­ship mo­ment.”

It’s also a telling mo­ment in that it pro­vides valu­able con­text to those who won­der what the Raptors would look like in a post-Lowry world. With the point guard out since the all-star break af­ter right wrist surgery, and with Toronto hav­ing surged in the past week, those mus­ings about the Raptors with­out Lowry have resur­faced again, as they did last year when Cory Joseph had some strong early play­off games. So, what would the Raptors be with­out Lowry? Ujiri isn’t think­ing about that.

“You have to re­mem­ber that, every­thing that has hap­pened to this team in the last few years, Kyle has been at the fore­front of that,” he says.

Will Ujiri try to bring him back in the off-sea­son, when the 31-year-old be­comes a free agent?

“No ques­tion,” he says. “Be­fore the in­jury, you could ar­gue he was one of the top five play­ers in the league this sea­son.”

The num­bers were im­pres­sive enough, with Lowry hav­ing re­dis­cov­ered the shoot­ing touch — es­pe­cially from dis­tance — that de­serted him in the play­offs last year. He was the Raptors’ leader in player ef­fi­ciency and min­utes played and a re­li­able crutch in crunch time.

But it is the other stuff that makes Lowry so in­dis­pens­able to this team. Coach Dwane Casey has to spend so much time an­swer­ing ques­tions about this or that lit­tle thing that Lowry did in the fourth quar­ter to turn a game in Toronto’s favour that he might as well be­gin his postgame com­ments ev­ery night with a Lowry-themed open­ing: “Kyle was great tonight. He’s our bull­dog, that’s why he’s our leader. He al­ways gets to the 50-50 balls, and he makes the right play at the right mo­ment. I can’t say enough about Kyle. Any other ques­tions?”

In a vac­uum, there is a case to be made against signing a point guard on the wrong side of 30 to a mas­sive con­tract. You could ar­gue, as at least a cou­ple of high-pro­file web­sites did this week, that Ujiri might want to move on with­out Lowry.

There are fair ques­tions about whether Lowry and DeMar DeRozan could be the two best play­ers on a cham­pi­onship team.

But there are far more ques­tions about what the Raptors would be with­out Lowry. He’s the guy who does all the lit­tle things, who bails the team out late, who takes the big shot or makes the right pass — and loses his mind when the snakebit­ten team­mate fi­nally makes a big shot of his own. He’s their leader, full stop. You might imag­ine re­build­ing the Raptors around some­one younger, taller and cheaper, but do you re­ally think you will do bet­ter than Kyle Lowry? It would be some kind of a gam­ble.

Wed­nes­day night at the ACC was a good re­minder of the Raptors with­out their start­ing point guard. They came out flat, pulled ahead of Charlotte in the fourth quar­ter — and then fell apart down the stretch as the Hor­nets drilled a se­ries of three point­ers to win 110106.

Be­fore the game, Ujiri had of­fered an opin­ion on Lowry that ended up rather prophetic: “The way he goes is the way we go.”

It is likely to re­main that way, in these parts, for some time.

CRAIG ROBERT­SON / POST­MEDIA NEWS FILES

Be­yond the points he pro­duces, guard Kyle Lowry is a valu­able leader for the Toronto Raptors, who fully in­tend to bring him back when he be­comes a free agent af­ter this sea­son, gen­eral man­ager Ma­sai Ujiri says.

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