OK, OK, yes: The Toronto Raptors are quite aware of their playoff reputation -- four exits in four years, just once past the conference semifinals. But this year, with a revamped playing style and an Eastern Conference-best 59 wins (a franchise record), Toronto is determined to rewrite the narrative. Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry sat down with ESPN's Rachel Nichols to talk about their on-court evolution, tight bond and pride for the Great White North.
ESPN: The regular season you guys just put in the books is a pretty big departure for the NBA. Usually if a team hasn't gotten quite where management wants it to go, they rip up the roster. This team, you guys kept the roster and changed the playbook. Now that you've seen that evolution through a season, how do you think it went?
DeMAR DeROZAN: I think you gotta withstand the test of time, you know? You gotta go through them dog days sometimes, to be built even stronger. And I think that's what we did. You gotta give the credit to the front office, believing. And it's a testament to us, sticking to our game. And one that continued to get better.
Your playing-style changes have been well-documented over the season. The one story I really liked was that during some of the intrasquad scrimmages early on, the coaches changed the scoring. So if you guys hit a corner 3, that actually counted for four points. But if you hit a midrange jumper, it counted for zero points. What was that like?
KYLE LOWRY: I hated it. [Laughs] I'm like, "Man, that's stupid. This ain't real basketball. Four points for a corner shot?" But it helped us realize the type of game we wanted to play. But, you know, don't take away the fact that we probably have the best midrange player in the NBA [in DeRozan], and he still does his thing. He can go out there and shoot as many as he wants because that's his game. But for everyone else, we shoot the 3s and then take the layups. It was good for us, I think. No one's hesitating on any shots.
So you guys evolved during the regular season. You got the No. 1 seed. How much does it matter if you don't have the playoff success you've been so focused on?
KL: Nothing else matters.
DD: No. We're playing for everything.
KL: Yeah, waste of a year for us.
A waste of a year?
KL: I mean, not a wasted year, but it's a disappointing year. I mean, the playoffs --
DD: It's a waste of a year.
DD: Period. You know, we put in all this work, and you want to compete for that championship. Anything less and you go into the summer upset, thinking, "Man, gotta do this all over again?"
So what is that level of success? Is it making it to the NBA Finals? Competing for a championship --
KL and DD: Championship.
Winning a championship?
KL: That's it. If you get there, you gotta win it. [Laughs]
You listen to radio and TV up here and the feeling is that you guys are not getting the respect you're due from the rest of the NBA, that people are skeptical of how the Raptors will do in the playoffs. Do you guys feel that?
KL: At the end of the day, we've been to a conference final. We've been to a second round. We've played the fifth-most playoff games in the last how many years. I mean, sometimes we haven't shot the ball well, but our teams have had some success in the playoffs. Personally, I don't pay attention to what people say. I just look at it like, "All right, whatever."
DD: Yeah, people are crazy. At the end of the day, that's just my conclusion. Like --
KL: People are crazy.
DD: I'm fine with us getting everything that we get the hard way. Nothing comes easy for us. Every success, individually and teamwise, that we had, nothing has been handed to us. And you know, you find more appreciation with it. Because we know the odds that we fight every single night.
I can tell that you two have no doubts when you look at each other -- "I can definitely count on him."
KL: We've had countless conversations, countless FaceTimes where we're talking and watching games, countless locker room talks. At the end of the day -- and I've said it, and I'm always gonna say it -- I'm going to ride or die with this guy. And I know vice versa.
Wait, do you guys watch games at home and FaceTime each other?
That's not normal. [Laughs]
DD: I mean, even the NCAA women's championship game, we FaceTimed it. As soon as [Arike Ogunbowale] hit the shot --
KL: Our friendship ain't fake. Like, it ain't a facade. It ain't for the cameras; we just happen to be caught on camera bein' goofy and silly. But at the end of the day, this is my brother. We'll do everything to help each other. We'll always be real with each other. And we'll always have each other's back.
Your friendship has evolved too. You guys have been pretty open about the fact that the first year Kyle was here, you didn't even talk off the court.
KL: He was already kind of embedded here, had his guys. And I was just like, "I'm gonna be here a couple years, then I'm out, so I ain't gonna make it tight."
DD: I didn't see him outside of the work facility, like --
DD: I really didn't talk to him. I didn't have his number. I didn't go eat with him --
Wait, you didn't have his phone number?
KL: No. At all. We didn't have each other's number.
DD: I didn't follow him on Twitter --
KL: Twitter, Instagram, nothing.
So what happened? What changed?
DD: I don't know. [Laughs] That's just the beauty of a friendship. When you think back to your closest friend, could you pinpoint when or how y'all got cool? It just happens. You look up and it's like, "Damn, I'm stuck with you?" [Laughs] You know what I mean?
You guys are legitimately different personalities, though. I want you to describe each other.
KL: He goes first.
DD: No, you go first.
KL: All right. He's very quiet. He's very to himself. People would think he's this serious guy, but he's really a big kid at heart. He's very loyal. And low-key -- you'd never know, but he's fiery. It takes a lot to get it out, but you don't wanna make him mad. He's a great father. His kids are unbelievably gorgeous. He takes care of them. He talks to 'em before every game and after every game, diligently. That's him.
All right, so what do you have about him?
KL: Oh, man. [Laughs]
DD: I'm gonna try my best. You know, he's by far one of the most intelligent human beings I've been around. Not just basketball -- I think it speaks for itself, the IQ on the court and everything. But everything else too. If it's scheduling, he can tell you what he's doing three and a half weeks from now. I couldn't tell you what I'm gonna do 30 minutes from now. It's a cool thing because three, four months down the line, I always think back to a lot of things that he told me. And I look up and it's like, "Damn, he did tell me that a while ago." You know, you had a plan. Everybody puts a stigma on him, like he's real anal or something. But you know, his reputation for being "difficult" is just that of a genius, in a sense. I love that.
You respect it.
DD: Yeah, once we started to communicate, that's what made me gain more respect for him, you know?
DeMar did something very courageous earlier this year. What did it say to you about him when he was so open in sharing his struggles with depression and coming out and telling people it was OK to feel that way?
KL: As a friend, we talk about things, but for him to do that -- he understood that he could set a precedent for everybody else to be comfortable. This man is a four-time All-Star, an Olympian, franchise all-time leading scorer. And he showed the humility to be able to say, "I'm human. I got a heart, I bleed, I got pain." He didn't do it for publicity, he didn't do it to get attention. He did it because he was having a conversation with somebody and it came up. And then you see Kevin Love come out. I got texts saying, "You know, what your man did was awesome." That's the type of person he is. He's a great guy.
There was a time in sports when someone would come out and say that stuff and the echo in the sports community would be like, "Oh, that's soft" or "That's not manly." But the reaction in the NBA has been the opposite of that. Is that what you expected?
DD: No, I would be lying to you if I told you it was. Honestly, I was more so doing it for myself than realizing the magnitude of the people I'd affect. But what I got back from that was more than I could ever imagine. Part of me is frustrated because it's like, "Man, I wish I woulda said something a while ago. I coulda helped more, or I coulda been better at this." But that's just because of all the love and the positivity that I got back from it.
The reaction that you got on the team, the fact that Kyle and your other teammates were right there with you -- has that drawn this team closer?
DD: We were already close to, like, it's just to a fault. We're like an AAU team.
KL: We got a great group, and I've never had a teammate come into our organization that we haven't brought in as a brother. And that's how we are: No matter who comes in, what comes in, you're gonna be our family.
Well, you've also been embraced by the city of Toronto. This city is behind you guys.
DD: Yes. [Laughs] It's amazing. Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal -- we've been to so many places, and the response over the whole country is crazy, totally another level.
If you guys are the team in the NBA Finals and you are repping Canada as a country and this city, Toronto, in particular, what do you think that would mean to people here?
KL: Everything. I think the country would just embrace us even more. And at the end of the day, we're playing for not just us, but we're playing for all the small cities across Canada, all the big provinces and territories.
DD: Even in the States, people come up to me and say, "Man, you know, I'm from Toronto." Everywhere we go, no matter where we at, it's like, you got people comin' up to you sayin', "I'm from Canada, I'm a Raptors fan." Growin' up, I wouldn't know nobody from Canada like that. [Laughs]
There was a long time where there was a knock on the city because of weather or the idea that free agents didn't want to come here. But you both had the opportunity to leave and you both re-signed here.
DD: Yeah, wasn't no second thought for me.
KL: This is home. It's comfortable. It's where we've grown as men, we've grown as basketball players, we've grown as fathers. It's the place we've been the majority of our careers.
For nearly a decade, LeBron James' team has come out of the East. So you go into any playoffs knowing that there's a good chance that's who you're gonna face if you want to advance. When you play the Cavaliers, what does that represent to you both?
KL: To be the best, you gotta beat the best. And that's what we're preparing for.
There's been a feeling, especially once you guys got the No. 1 seed -- "Oh, it's Toronto's turn." Because you know what the past has been, and the future is coming quick too. You've got a Boston team that's wounded but has this incredible next few years set up. And this upstart team in Philadelphia that no one expected to even have home-court advantage in the playoffs, and all of a sudden it's making so much noise. So right now, with LeBron and Cleveland looking more vulnerable than they've looked in a while, does it feel to you guys like this is it? This is your window? This is your time?
KL: I think we felt like that for a while now. We just haven't executed it.
DD: Yeah, as long as you have that opportunity, you gotta understand, they don't come around too often. Now we have an opportunity. This could be our last; we gotta treat it like our last. So to answer your question: most definitely, without a doubt.
KL: That was a lot of explanation just to say "most definitely."
Styling by Nadia Pizzimenti/P1M; Grooming by Sabrina Rinaldi/P1M