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Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry acknowledges the crowd in Toronto on April 3.The Canadian Press

Kyle Lowry arrived at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Sunday dressed for a memorable night.

The veteran NBA guard strolled into the back wings of the arena ready for his long-awaited homecoming, with cameras following him every step. He was sporting a sharp navy suit, blue-tinted designer sunglasses, and the hefty diamond-encrusted 2019 NBA championship ring that he helped the Raptors earn and its jeweller design.

“Something special,” he said, admiring the enormous bobble on his finger in his pre-game news conference. “I was like I’m going home, so I’ll wear something – it’s special to me, and the country, and the city and the organization. So why not wear it?”

It was Lowry’s first game back in Toronto since the team traded him to the Miami Heat after nine seasons in Canada. Back to the place where he helped carve the franchise culture, while becoming arguably the greatest Raptor of all time.

The short-handed Heat would squeak out a 114-109 victory behind 16 points and 10 assists from Lowry, the first real glimpse of him facing his close friend and former teammate Fred Van Vleet in a real NBA game – two men who play the same gritty, hard-nosed, never-say-die style. Miami snapped Toronto’s five-game win streak, as the regular season swings into its final crucial week and teams firm up their playoff spots.

Lowry spun through the arena’s familiar hallways waving and smiling to arena staff and reporters, and wrapping his arms around old friends and teammates. Fans applauded wildly at the earliest glimpses of him, even as he warmed up in the layup line.

He blended sentimentality for the occasion with his usual good-natured saltiness for Toronto reporters in equal ratio. Asked if he was likely to cry, he dryly responded: “If I cry DeMar [DeRozan] will make fun of me … and it will go viral.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory had even proclaimed Sunday to be ‘Kyle Lowry Day.’

“I miss everything about the city, the country, the organization, there’s a lot to miss,” Lowry said. “My kids grew up here.”

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Fred VanVleet and former teammate Kyle Lowry share a laugh on the court.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The 36-year-old star had his two sons at his side on-court for the emotional welcome-back video and a lengthy raucous standing ovation from the fans, during which Lowry waved, smiled and put his hand over his heart. The boys had been sad to leave their Toronto friends, he said, and are spending a few extra days during this visit catching up with them. They even took in a hockey game. But they’re Miami kids now, in the groove of wearing shorts and T-shirts every day.

The tribute video showed Lowry’s earliest days as a Raptor at age 26, the lean years, the building years, the big shots he made, and the gutsy charges he took. It featured moments with former teammates Kawhi Leonard and DeRozan, head coach Nick Nurse and team president Masai Ujiri. It brought back Toronto’s unforgettable parade, complete with the image of millions of onlookers reflected in his sunglasses while he stood atop a float cradling the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Lowry spoke to media respectfully of his departure this off-season, and the men getting the Raptors back to a playoff spot this year. Their current success doesn’t surprise Lowry a bit.

“It was just time, just a naturally good phase-out,” Lowry said. “It was time for the next phase, for … Freddy [VanVleet], Pascal [Siakam], OG [Anunoby] to take their next steps … it worked out perfectly for everybody. When you’ve given so much to a franchise, and they’ve given you so much, you just want to see them be successful.”

Lowry had missed Miami’s two other games against Toronto earlier this season. His return came, instead, before a full crowd, in the final week of the regular season – the Heat trying to keep control of the top playoff seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and the fifth-place Raptors trying to avoid the play-in tournament. The Raps were on a roll – winners in 11 of their previous 13 games.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Lowry said. “Two teams trying to get playoff position. This is like, kind of perfect timing.”

The competitive fire was on display between Lowry and his former Raptors teammates – men who had been young rookies when Lowry first met them, and advised them. The foes joked and bantered with Lowry as much as they got in his face and tried to stop him.

“I hope to god we ruin his night,” Nurse said before the game. “We love him, there’s no doubt about that. But you know, my job is to kick his ass.”

The game did not have all the expected stars. Jimmy Butler did not play for the Heat, nor PJ Tucker. OG Anunoby was a late scratch for Toronto due to a thigh injury. Erik Spoelstra did not coach the Heat because he was in health and safety protocols. Assistant coach Chris Quinn led the Heat instead.

“That version of [Lowry], obviously, we’ve seen countless times,” said VanVleet. “Where you have an under-manned team and he comes in on the second night of a back-to-back and beats one of the hottest teams in the league.”

Fittingly, Lowry was there to see VanVleet break one of his Raptors records in Sunday’s game – a player Lowry had taken under his wing. VanVleet hit his 239th three-point shot, breaking Lowry’s single-season franchise record. The Raps point guard, in the midst of his first all-star season, hit four three-pointers on the night, and added seven assists to lead Toronto, while Siakam also added 29 points, with seven boards, and Scottie Barnes had 19 points.

Overall, the Raptors weren’t pleased with their defence late – they gave up 69 points in the second half. But Lowry and VanVleet showed glimpses throughout the night of what they used to be like facing one each other as fiery teammates in workouts.

“That’s what respect looks like,” said VanVleet on how intensely they guarded one another in this game. “One of the reasons why I’ve been able to grow as a player in this league is because he set the bar so high.”

Max Strus scored 23 points for Miami, while Victor Oladipo added six threes toward his 21 points, Tyler Herro added 18 points and Bam Adebayo had 16.

The playoff picture in the Eastern Conference is likely to remain murky until the regular season finishes on April 10.

While many fans didn’t know what to expect of the Raptors this season without the veteran point guard, Toronto’s team is playing its way back into the post-season. The Raptors have four games left to play, versus Atlanta, Philadelphia, Houston and New York.

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