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Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry: ‘When you care about winning, it’s easy’

NBA veteran returned from injury and accepted a reserve role mentoring his replacement

MIAMI – Kyle Lowry expected to just talk basketball and life when he was asked to visit with Miami Heat president Pat Riley in his office just before the NBA All-Star Break. However, the Basketball Hall of Famer also broke some unexpected news to the 37-year-old that he would likely be a reserve with fewer minutes when he returned from a knee injury. That change would also snap Lowry’s 677-game streak of starting.

Once the meeting was over, Lowry humbly put the bench role scenario in perspective as he headed home in the warm South Florida sun.

“I had no emotions. It’s life. I was walking out to 75-degree weather. I was just going home,” Lowry told Andscape.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr recently said on The Draymond Green Show to his star forward that he was impressed by the Heat player’s respect for the role and commitment to winning. Kerr said the Heat players buying into their roles “make the decisions for the coach really simple.” That mentality is part of why Miami went from an Eastern Conference eighth seed to the 2023 NBA Finals.

The underdog Heat are now tied 1-1 in the NBA Finals with the Denver Nuggets with Game 3 Wednesday night at the Keseya Center. While Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he wasn’t aware of Kerr’s respectful words, he expressed pride once he heard them.

“That is probably the most important thing when you’re trying to build a team to contend for a championship,” Spoelstra said after practice Tuesday. “It’s elusive. It’s tough. But you try to be intentional about it. You try to get guys who really care about winning above anything, even if they have to sacrifice. Also, understanding that it is the requisite to sacrifice.

“We have a lot of guys who have played much different roles and excelled in different roles. But they have the emotional stability that when their roles have to change that it’s about the time.”

Lowry’s ability to think of championship and team, not ego, is one example of Kerr’s analogy.

Lowry was primarily a reserve at the beginning of his NBA career with the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets from 2006-2010. Since the 2010-11 season, the 6-foot, 196-pound player has been primarily a starting point guard in the NBA. Lowry was one of the NBA’s elite point guards, as evidenced by his being an All-Star from 2015-2020 with the Toronto Raptors and winning an NBA championship in 2019. Mr. Raptor averaged 17.5 points, 7.1 assists and 4.9 rebounds during his time in Canada. Lowry departed and joined the Heat in 2021 on a three-year, $85 million contract with dreams of helping NBA All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo get their first championship.

“It was a great decision,” Lowry said. “It worked out for both sides. It was time for me to go my separate way and let Freddy kind of take on the challenge of being Fred VanVleet. And he’s been unbelievable, an All-Star now. He’s about to get paid. And that’s all I really care about, him being more successful as a man, making money for his family.

“Coming here, I got the opportunity to play with one of my closest friends, Jimmy Butler, and an opportunity to be around Bam. I got an opportunity to be around Tyler [Herro], help these guys grow. I got an opportunity to be around Gabe [Vincent] and have the same situation where you make money, be able to get better, and have a chance to win a ring.”

Lowry averaged 13.4 points, 7.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 63 contests in his first season with the Heat during the 2021-2022 campaign. Knee soreness this season sidelined him for 15 games between Feb. 2 to March 11 this season. Vincent started in his place for good. Lowry returned to action with the Heat coming off the bench during a 126-114 overtime loss to the Orlando Magic on March 11.

Lowry’s return also included 12 points and four assists in 36 minutes, which was more than the time limit given to Spoelstra in the veteran’s return. Spoelstra said Lowry has “excelled” coming off the bench.

“He is all about winning,” Spoelstra said. “At this stage of his career, when you have more yesterdays than you do tomorrows, it’s really about being at the competitive moments on the biggest stage. That is what drives him more than anything, is the ultimate competition.

“It was a relatively easy decision to bring him off the bench. We had to shut him down for five weeks, and when he came back, he had a minutes restriction that we were aware of. But when he came back he played 36 minutes. Then coach got yelled at by everybody. Kyle and I met the next day and we were laughing about it. We have to protect each other. The only way to do that was to bring him off the bench so we protect his minutes.”

Lowry said Spoelstra officially breaking the news that he would come off the bench wasn’t a hard conversation for him because, as a pro, he understands that you have to “accept things” if you’re truly about winning.

“It’s about being a pro,” Lowry said. “It’s about winning, honestly. It’s easy when you have grinded to get to a starter. I wasn’t always a starter. So, I understand the role, how important that is. And, for me, being a professional and being a guy that only cares about winning, it makes it easy, honestly.

“Yeah, of course, I want to still be a starter and all that stuff. But when you are at a point where you can win, and you can win big and you can still help, you can also mentor and still play and compete, it’s fun. If you go out as a starter, ‘Hell, yeah.’ But, at this point, that doesn’t matter. It’s about winning. It’s about helping.”

Guard Kyle Lowry of the Miami Heat before Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals. The six-time All-Star and NBA champion saw his 677-game streak of starting snapped earlier this season.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The last time Lowry came off the bench was as a member of the Raptors on Jan. 26, 2013, against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Vincent averaged 10.8 points and 2.4 assists in 34 regular-season games as a starter over Lowry with the Heat this season. The undrafted point guard who began his pro career in the G League has been a star in the Finals, averaging 21 points and 4.5 rebounds in two games.

Since the demotion, Lowry has served as an important mentor for Vincent.

“I’m so proud of him,” Lowry said. “I’m so proud of him because he’s always been counted out. You get counted out like a guy like him, he works so hard and just respect everything he’s done and what he’s doing. Last [season] there were games he didn’t even play. This [season], he didn’t even play the first game. It just shows the resiliency of a true man.”

Vincent told Andscape, “He has handled it very well. He’s been extremely supportive of me. I’m just grateful for him.”

Lowry surprised even himself when he got comfortable in reserve well. He is now so comfortable as a reserve that he was uncomfortable when he had to start for an injured Vincent in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals during a 110-97 loss against the Boston Celtics on May 25.

“Game 5 in Boston, I was like, ‘What the [expletive]?,’” Lowry said with a laugh. “It was weird. It was different. But preparing [as a starter] is kind of like being ready to come in right away with energy. Right away with energy. Right away with the mindset to be attacking and aggressive. It’s different, but when you care about winning, it’s easy.

“I’m used to coming off the bench now. My mind is good. I feel great. I’m so into the game and I’m ready to go as soon as I pop off the bench. Before, we wanted to kind of keep myself warm, but now I’m at the point where it’s about mental. It’s about being ready to go. And I’m ready to go as soon as they put me out there.”

So how did Lowry learn this humility?

Lowry said it came from growing up in an underprivileged and tough neighborhood in North Philadelphia. The former Villanova University star added that the biggest challenge of his youth was worrying about being a victim of gun violence daily. Lowry credits his older brother, Lonnie Lowry Jr., for keeping him away from street life and the wrong crowd. Life is certainly much grander thanks to basketball for the married father of two sons who has netted nearly $250 million in his NBA career.

“Growing up the way I grew up with my mom, my grandmama, I grew up with nothing,” Lowry said. “I grew up trying to figure it out on the streets. I had an older brother, Lonnie, who kind of just kept me humble. And I tried to follow him and be a human being. At the end of the day, we all live, we all die, we all bleed. So why not just all work together and just help each other?”

Lowry entered the 2022-2023 season as the NBA’s 12th oldest player. With Heat teammate Udonis Haslem and Warriors forward Andre Iguodala expected to retire, Lowry could move up to 10th oldest on the list next season while in the final year of his contract. While the Heat guard is not contemplating retirement, he acknowledges that he is in the final chapters of his career now.

This current chapter could lead to exactly what Lowry came to Miami for — a second NBA title.

“I know we’re at the end. Closer to the end than the beginning,” Lowry said. “But I still feel I got a lot to give to the game, physically. That’s all I really care about as long as I physically can still give to the game. Mentally, I can give 25 years. Physically is where things start to slow down a little bit. But also, you got to be smart about life. Basketball is a certain amount of time, but kids are forever. Kids and family are forever …

“There is no way to define how much a second championship would mean to me. It’s too much to even think about. It’s everything. It would be everything. I got one. One is great. But two? Can put two middle fingers.”

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.