TORONTO -- KYLE LOWRY'S path to becoming the starting point guard for a team in the NBA Finals could best be described as a happy accident.
When he joined the Toronto Raptors in a trade with the Houston Rockets in July 2012, he was forced to compete with Jose Calderon for minutes before eventually beating out the Spaniard when Calderon was traded. A year later, a different trade -- one that didn't happen -- would've sent him to the New York Knicks, only for them to scuttle the deal at the last minute after it was all but done.
Then came last summer. After yet another playoff beatdown at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the other two pillars of the greatest stretch in Raptors history -- coach Dwane Casey and guard DeMar DeRozan, who happens to be Lowry's best friend -- were fired and traded, leaving Lowry as the last man standing from a five-year run that had been both the team's most successful and ultimately most disappointing.
Meanwhile, a guy who spent the first few years of his career bouncing from place to place, struggling to find a home, has found one north of the border -- a place Lowry himself never dreamed he'd be for this long.
"When I first got traded here I didn't really know what to expect," Lowry said Saturday. "I thought I would be here a couple years, and be out of here."
Instead, he came and never left. Now Toronto finds itself three wins away from its first championship in franchise history. And while much of the praise has gone to former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and breakout star Pascal Siakam, it has been Lowry who, behind the scenes, has been driving Toronto to heights it has never reached before.
"We have been through so much, and he's a winner," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said. "There's no other way to put it, he's a winner. He's been hit upside the head from every different angle in the world, whether it's personal, everything, and he survives it. Like every day he comes, he comes to win. Doesn't matter what mood he's in, like he comes to win."
"I GOT MAD respect for Kyle."
It's the day before the biggest moment in Raptors franchise history: Game 1 of the NBA Finals here at Scotiabank Arena. A franchise that, for most of its history, has operated on the fringes of relevance (even in the best of times) now finds itself with a true superstar in Leonard, the platform of playing against one of the greatest teams in NBA history in front of the entire world, and the chance to forever make itself part of basketball royalty ahead of it.
Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green is at the lectern, holding court as he always does in front of the cameras, tape recorders and microphones. Green will do whatever it takes to gain an advantage -- be it on the court, or at the podium. He'll make any play, or say anything, in order to advance the cause of winning.
But when Lowry's name comes up, he goes out of his way to praise a kindred spirit, acknowledging their similar paths to stardom and the ways their games mirror one another.
"He wasn't always an All-Star," Green said. "He wasn't always a starter. But he got it out of the mud and he's where he's at today.
"He's faced a lot of doubt. He's been criticized a ton, this year and previous years before, but yet he's still standing and he's here in this moment, and it's well-deserved."
That Lowry came from such a place -- traded twice, without a starting job in the league until his fifth season, not named on an All-Star team until his ninth -- helps explain how his game is perceived by his peers. He's listed at 6-foot-1. He's oddly shaped. He'll never be seen as the quickest or most athletic player on the court.
And yet, despite all that, he constantly finds himself making winning plays.
"He plays above his talent," Raptors center Marc Gasol said. "That's how I look at it. You see his talent, and he plays above it."
So how, exactly, does a player with Lowry's (lack of) physical gifts find a way to survive in a league full of players who are almost universally bigger, stronger and faster? By relying on the things he learned playing on the streets of North Philadelphia as a kid: grit, toughness and a determination to never back down.
"He plays like a Philly boy," Raptors guard Danny Green said. "He's a bulldog. He's a bully. He's out there with grit, doing his all, doing his thing. He's scrappy.
"He's trying to take everything he can. Obviously he's a little bit different off the court as he's gotten older, has a family now with children, but not much.
"He's a Philly boy at heart. That's who he is, and that's how he plays."
There have been multiple moments that have exemplified those traits during this playoff run. Lowry secured a critical offensive rebound to win Game 3 of Toronto's first-round series against the Orlando Magic. He repeatedly found himself taking charges against Joel Embiid -- who has only a foot and roughly 100 pounds on Lowry -- against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
And in Game 6 against the Bucks, Lowry's handprints were all over the run Toronto made at the start of the fourth quarter to take control of the game. No play was more definitively a Lowry one than the steal, drive and dish he made to Leonard for an epic slam dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo -- a play that Lowry, in true Lowry fashion, helped further facilitate by giving Antetokounmpo a slight nudge, preventing him from properly challenging Leonard's shot.
"Those are the Kyle Lowry-type plays," Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said with a smile.
"As we've seen this whole playoff run, from the offensive rebound in Orlando, charges on Embiid ... it's something special."
"HE'S A COMPLETE jackass on the court, and he's probably one of the best teammates I've ever had."
Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, Lowry's understudy for the past three seasons, is blunt when asked to describe Kyle Lowry.
Lowry prefers the world only see the hard exterior that he puts on display during news conferences and when he is on the court. But that's not the person the Raptors know best. VanVleet calls it a "weird dynamic."
"His teammates love him," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "He's the guy that's feeding them a lot on the planes. He's inviting them over to his house in Philly, making sure there's team events he's in charge of -- and funding."
During his early stints in Memphis and Houston, Lowry had developed a reputation -- perhaps undeserved -- for butting heads with teammates and coaches. But in Toronto he has grown into the kind of veteran the young players on the team all gravitate toward. For VanVleet -- another tough-nosed, undersized point guard, it was natural he and Lowry would grow to form a bond.
VanVleet said their families are close -- Lowry shouted out the birth of VanVleet's second child, Fred Jr., at a news conference after Toronto's Game 4 win over Milwaukee. VanVleet credited Lowry for helping him, after going undrafted out of Wichita State, develop into one of the league's best backup point guards.
"He's meant everything," VanVleet said. "He helps me on the court, off the court. He helps me in a lot of things. He's taught me a lot, he's showed me a lot. He's a great friend. I love him to death. There's nothing he wouldn't do for me, and vice versa.
"He's just got a big, loving heart, man. Under all that antics of him trying to be a tough guy, he tries to portray himself like an a--hole, and he's just a big teddy bear."
Siakam, whose 32-point performance helped power Toronto to its Game 1 win over the Warriors on Thursday night, said Lowry's encouragement to continue expanding his game was a big part of what led to his breakout season -- one that most likely will end in Siakam winning the league's Most Improved Player award later this month.
But he also said Lowry's coaching as he navigates through what comes his way as his star rises has been equally important to him.
"He's always been one of the guys, even early, encouraging me to dribble the basketball," Siakam said. "And just, in terms of life in terms of the jump I'm making, he's given me advice on how things are going to change ... but at the same time encouraging me to be myself.
"He's amazing. He's definitely been a help for me, being here. He's one of the best teammates I've ever had."
"This is our sixth year with Kyle, and it's a testament to him that he's grown every single year," Webster said. "I think if anyone can think about making personal growth six years in a row, you get to be a pretty good person, and you get to be a pretty good leader, on and off the court."
"I CALL IT home."
In the aftermath of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, as the Raptors and their fans celebrated their first trip to the NBA Finals, Lowry remained all business.
He secured the game ball after George Hill's meaningless last-second heave bounced away from the rim. He immediately began shaking hands with members of the Bucks, then migrated toward Toronto's locker room.
All of that changed, though, when he saw his children -- Karter and Kameron -- waiting for him on the baseline. Suddenly, the facade that Lowry always tries to maintain -- stoic and acerbic -- melted away.
Still holding that game ball under his left arm, Lowry wrapped both young boys in his arms -- each wearing a red No. 7 Raptors jersey, with matching camouflage pants and white shoes -- lifting them off the ground.
"I can't even tell you," Lowry would say later that night, taking a quiet moment at his locker inside Scotiabank Arena, having reached a point that many in these parts thought the Raptors never could. "It was everything you could kind of imagine. Everything you could possibly think about as a basketball player. It's things you can't even explain."
Later, as Lowry sat at his locker, thumbing through his phone and scanning the 220 messages he said he had to respond to, the moment for sentiment had passed. His defiant game face was firmly back in place.
"I don't look for it as validation," he said of reaching the Finals. "I think it's more so all the work that we've put in as an organization, a team -- everything that's brought us to this moment."
Lowry has said repeatedly throughout the season that this team has championship potential. At every point during the playoffs, he has repeated the same mantra: "Stay level."
Saturday night was no different. Those emotions poured out, but then they were gone -- perhaps to be revealed again sometime in the next couple of weeks.
"Nothing I can think about right now, to be honest with you," Lowry said with a smile, when asked what this run has meant to him. "I'll look back on this thing when I'm done. I'll look back on everything when I get a chance to. But not right now.
"We've got another one to try to get."