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Kyle Lowry and Raptors aim to finally break through against their nemesis

Toronto’s season has ended at the hands of LeBron James the past two years

NBA All-Star Kyle Lowry recalls when he was 5 years old and joined his older brother in watching television to see Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls finally knock off the Detroit Pistons in 1991 to advance to the NBA Finals. Jordan and the Bulls were eliminated by the famed “Bad Boys” the previous three seasons before the breakthrough that eventually resulted in the first of Jordan’s six NBA titles.

Now Lowry and his Toronto Raptors face a similar challenge as they aim to finally push King James off his throne by beating their nemesis Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

“I’m an ’86 baby. I wasn’t a student of the game or a connoisseur at the time,” Lowry said by phone on Monday. “But my brother, Lonnie, was five years older and was always watching the games. And I would sit there and watch them. It’s a great comparison to then and now. Cleveland now, and Detroit then was the ‘Bad Boys.’

“It is never disrespect. The respect we have for them is the respect we have for them. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to do what we need to do to take [LeBron James’] throne, and he knows that. He knows guys are coming for him. It’s not like he doesn’t know it, but we have to go out there and do it.”

Lowry told The Undefeated early this season that if the Raptors were to make it to the NBA Finals, it was inevitable that they would have to beat James and the Cavaliers. In a bit of a surprise, the top-seeded Raptors are playing the fourth-seeded and three-time reigning Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers in the second round.

James and the Cavaliers swept the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs last year. In 2016, the four-time NBA MVP and the Cavaliers beat the Raptors in a six-game series in the Eastern Conference finals. While Toronto has home-court advantage in this series, the Raptors have lost six straight playoff games in Cleveland and 10 of their last 11 games there overall.

“At some point, you’ve got to prepare yourself to get ready to take your team and yourself to the next level and continue to worry about how you can control it, not worry about what you can’t control,” Lowry said. “You worry about what you can control with your team.

“We have to play our game and don’t worry about what happened in the past. Whatever people are bringing up from the past is in the past.”

James averaged 29.3 points, 8 assists and 6.7 rebounds against the Raptors in the regular season. The three-time NBA champion carried the Cavaliers by averaging 34.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.4 steals in a first-round series win against the Indiana Pacers. An admittedly tired James had 45 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in a series-deciding 105-101 victory against the Pacers in Game 7 on Sunday. The Cavaliers had just one day off before the start of this second-round series in Toronto on Tuesday night.

“The question everybody asks me as a basketball guy is, ‘Do you double [James]?’ ‘Do you [defend] him one-on-one?” Lowry said. “He has seen everything. You just have to play basketball. You have to make him uncomfortable if you can and make him work a little harder. Pick him up. Touch him. Feel him.

“Indiana did a good job of playing and throwing bodies at him, making him work a little more when he was taking the ball up, picking him up. Not just letting him catch the ball at the elbow or mid-post and do whatever he wants.”

James told ABC: “We know the head of the snake is [DeMar] DeRozan and Lowry, but those guys off the bench come in with the same attitude and the same confidence as the starters.”

DeRozan is averaging 26.7 points per game in the postseason, while Lowry is nailing 43.6 percent of his 3-pointers and averaging 17.2 points and 8.3 assists. The Raptors’ deep bench is also arguably the best in the NBA. “The Bench Mob” with Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl outscored opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, which was the second-best mark among 29 lineups that played at least 300 minutes together.

“The key to the ‘Bench Mob,’ period, is their confidence, staying with it and just playing, not worrying,” Lowry said. “And that is what they have been doing all year. The best games they played, they’re like, ‘We ain’t coming out the game.’ And that is when they play their best. Literally, they’ve said that six times and they haven’t come out the game. It’s crazy.

“Me and DeMar are over there on the bench cheering, clapping, happy. That is the key to them being that confident squad. … Me and [DeRozan], personally, we know what we’ve got to do. We know where the tables go. We know they’re going to double us, make us make plays or make other guys make plays. We’re prepared for it. That’s the one thing about me, DeMar and our team now, is our team is improved, different, and if they double us we know [our teammates] are going to make the right play and take the right shot.”

The Raptors have pressure from their fans and the entire country of Canada to get to the Finals for the first time. Getting past James and the Cavaliers is a difficult second step in the never-before-completed journey. Even if the Raptors push Cleveland to an elimination game, the kill won’t be easy, as James averages 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists in such games.

Lowry said the Raptors “have to take advantage of the opportunity” against James and the Cavs.

“We are ready for it,” Lowry said. “You’ve been in this situation before. The first time you played them you really didn’t know what to expect. It was just like go out there and have fun, but we just weren’t playing extremely great basketball.

“But I think this time we are a completely different team. We’re older. We’re more comfortable in what we are doing. We are comfortable in what we want to do. We’re more so just prepared mentally to just stay level-headed.

“Nothing matters. Everything will work itself out.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.