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Kyle Lowry lifted up his game by dropping the pounds

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NEW YORK -- "Bro, is that Kyle Lowry?" J.J. Redick asks Kyle O'Quinn.

It is the morning of Aug. 5, 2015, and O'Quinn has just posted an Instagram photo of the Toronto Raptors' franchise point guard that seems to have blown up the Internet.

"Skinny Kyle Lowry" is about to become a thing.

Good AM run with the Fellas!!!

A photo posted by Kyle OQuinn (@kyle.oquinn) on

Over the summer, between rigorous workouts at Villanova University and then Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, Lowry managed to lose 15 pounds -- dropping from 210 to 195, with just 4.3 percent body fat.

"yeah!! Lol. The slimmer version," O'Quinn replies to Redick's question.

"he looks amazing. Geez" a surprised Redick responds.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey, whom Lowry describes as "the nicest gentleman in the world -- a stubborn, Southern coach who's hard-nosed and knows what he wants" -- remembers having a similar reaction to Redick upon seeing the photo.

"I hardly recognized [Kyle]," Casey says. "As an organization, we knew what he was planning to do, but when I woke up that morning and saw the photo I was like, 'Whoa!' "

Sitting on a couch in the lobby of the Trump SoHo, the luxurious hotel where the Raptors are staying before their Jan. 6 game later that night against the Brooklyn Nets, Lowry laughs about the whole thing.

"I'm telling you right now, it was all J.J.'s fault," Lowry says. "But I do give J.J. the credit for getting it out there. It was a good thing. So thank you, J.J."

Lowry has experienced all sorts of entertaining reactions to his physical transformation.

" 'What happened to Kyle?' 'The old Kyle ate the new Kyle.' Stuff like that. Funny things," Lowry said. "But it's all love and fans being fans and friends being friends and family being family."

The impact of his new physique and condition has been nothing short of career-changing.

Lowry currently ranks sixth in the NBA in ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM), which measures overall on-court impact while taking into account quality of teammates and opponents.

And Thursday, he was selected as an All-Star for the second consecutive season. Lowry overcame a 32,000-vote deficit to Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving in the last update to claim the second backcourt spot and the right to start on his home court in Toronto. But for Lowry and those closest to him, remaking his 29-year-old body wasn't just about enhancing his performance in October, November, December and January.

"I want to play longer, to be a more effective player into my mid-to-late 30s," says Lowry, who has logged the 10th-most regular-season minutes in the league since 2013-14, with 6,807. "I don't want to be a guy that's just out there to be out there; I want to play and contribute. So for me it's just maintaining it. Now I'm at a point to where it's, 'How do I get even better?' I'm at a point to where I want to be even better."


The pinnacle of physicality

According to Lowry, when it comes to losing weight, there was no revelation.

"It wasn't, 'Oh my god, I need to do this,' " he says. "I've been talking about doing this for three years now, honestly. No one knows that -- I don't tell people my business -- but it started a couple years ago with getting a chef and getting a nutritionist. 'Now you've learned your body. Now you can do it.' "

Last season, Lowry put together a superb first half -- averaging 18.6 points and 7.2 assists on 42.3 percent shooting over the first 53 games -- and was voted to start in the backcourt for the Eastern Conference in his first All-Star Game.

But in the second half, Lowry missed 12 games because of injuries. At first, his calf and hamstring bothered him, causing the Raptors to rest him for three games. He also dislocated a finger in Memphis in late January.

"Preparation is key in life, and I think that's what I did. I prepared for it, and I just wanted to make sure that I started to live the way I wanted to live. Yes, it's going to help me play in the NBA, but after I'm done playing, too."

Kyle Lowry

Then, in late March, as he was attempting to drive to the rim, Lowry got kneed in the back by Minnesota's Gorgui Dieng, and suffered a contusion. He returned after missing only two games, but his comeback lasted only 11 minutes before he needed to exit again. Lowry would need seven more games off to recover from back spasms.

He closed out the regular season averaging 15.1 points and 5.4 assists on 37.3 percent shooting in his final 17 games. The playoffs proved to be even more of a struggle for Lowry, who frequently found himself in foul trouble as the Raptors were swept out of the first round by the Washington Wizards. In those four games, Lowry averaged only 12.3 points and 4.8 assists on 31.6 percent shooting. Meanwhile, his counterpart, John Wall, had 50 assists in the series.

"I don't want to make excuses," Lowry says. "At the end of the day, I didn't play well. I don't think about last year. It is what it is. My goal coming into this year was to make sure that doesn't happen again. That's all I really focused on." Multiple sources close to Lowry, however, suggest the tipping point was right after the team's postseason ouster, when the 10-year veteran's weight became the subject of great scrutiny.

"That was the last straw," according to one source. "It bothered him that he was taking criticisms about his body unnecessarily.

"People were making it seem like he was over 225 pounds [when he was 210].

"Kyle's production -- or lack thereof -- wasn't attached to his weight, but somehow his body always became a point of emphasis. He didn't mind being criticized on his performance, but he wanted to take any criticisms about his body out of the conversation. He thrives under the concept of being a 'bulldog,' but the concept of being overweight gives off a soft demeanor."

Says Lowry: "People make it out to be that I had a bad playoffs and then I changed my body. But you can't just change your body and not prepare for it. You've got to prepare for these things.

"Preparation is key in life, and I think that's what I did. I prepared for it, and I just wanted to make sure that I started to live the way I wanted to live. Yes, it's going to help me play in the NBA, but after I'm done playing, too."

The workouts

Lowry's offseason began with daily 6 a.m. workouts at Villanova -- the university he attended for two years before declaring for the draft in 2006 -- just weeks after his team's postseason ouster.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were for strength building. Tuesdays and Thursdays were for improving conditioning.

Wildcats men's basketball head strength and conditioning coach John Shackleton has been working with Lowry for the past three summers, and says Lowry was "laser-focused" during their eight-week stint together.

From there, it was on to Las Vegas, where Lowry has been training annually with Impact Basketball founder Joe Abunassar for the past decade.

"We didn't do a lot differently," Abunassar said. "We just maybe started a little earlier -- with a focus on bringing his weight down."

In Vegas, Lowry worked out hard on weekdays. He'd start with either individual or two-man basketball workouts on the court for 60 to 90 minutes in the morning. Then he'd eat a heavier meal -- the result of needing more energy -- before playing 5-on-5 with other pros around noon.

When that was over, Lowry would lift weights and do other core-strengthening exercises before taking a break and participating in an evening session of Pilates (which he swears by) or cardio while ending with a light dinner -- something like fish or chicken and vegetables.

Throughout the process in Vegas, which lasted seven weeks, Lowry never took two consecutive days off.

"It's about fueling your body and then using that fuel the right way," Lowry says. "You can put as much fuel in your body as you want, but if you're not using it the right way or burning it off the right way, it doesn't work. Everything goes together -- your training, your eating -- and you just have to figure out what pieces go where."

Lowry admits this is the best he has felt both physically and mentally since his college days.

"I was always in good shape," he says. "But when you're playing 38-40 minutes a night and your body looks different, people look at you different."

Abunassar continues to keep in regular contact with Lowry throughout the season, making sure he's feeling good.

"He's ahead of the game," Abunassar said. "He stayed disciplined for five months over the summer, and he's still doing Pilates now. He's so tough mentally. It's rewarding to see people's hard work pay off. If he continues to play well in March and April and hopefully into late May and June, that will validate all that we did in terms of the summertime."

Seeing the results

On Dec. 5, 2015, the Raptors suffered their second loss this season to the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The losses were frustratingly close -- by five and three points. Lowry played arguably the best game of his career against Stephen Curry. He scored a career-high 41 points but Curry edged him with 44 points of his own.

One day, Lowry aspires to reach the level of greatness Curry has attained.

"I still feel like I can be better," Lowry says. "I'm never satisfied. Mentally, I'm in a good place. I feel good. My team is good. But I think the best I can be is a champion. There is no other goal in basketball."

Across the board, his offensive numbers are up (20.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 41.9 percent shooting -- including 38.3 percent from 3-point range and 88 percent from the free throw line). And on defense (2.3 steals), he's creating more havoc than ever by playing the role of aggressive rover in Casey's system. Plus, the Raptors are on pace for 53 wins -- their most in franchise history.

"He's competitive, fiery and gets after guys," one Eastern Conference coach said. "He's the a--h--- you hate playing against but want on your team. He's a little guard, but I like the way he plays. I like his heart and his intelligence quotient is really good in terms of calling plays and reading them. Guys know about his ability to take charges yet he still manages to lure them into offensive fouls. He's always willing to put his body on the line."

Put up or shut up

Toronto's championship window won't be open forever, and Lowry knows that. He says it's time to put up or shut up. The bar has been raised; the Raptors enjoy favored-citizen status in the city for the first time in a long while. First-round exits are no longer acceptable. And who knows what the future holds.

"It's cool to make the playoffs," Lowry said. "It's not cool to lose in the first round anymore. The goal is to make the Finals."

Lowry's best friend is DeMar DeRozan (23.1 PPG), the Raptors' leading scorer and an impending unrestricted free agent, assuming he opts out of the final year of his contract worth $10 million, as expected. With free-agent acquisition DeMarre Carroll rehabbing from knee surgery, it places even more pressure on the duo.

"No question," says Casey. "It's not just about starting strong but ending strong and maintaining throughout the year, and I think Kyle senses that. He's the engine for our team. We've been through ups and downs the last three, four years, and the next step for him is to win a playoff series. We go as far as he goes."

During Lowry's first three seasons with the Raptors, the franchise's win total has increased from 34 to 48 to 49. But Lowry wants more. That's why he put all that work in over the summer.

"He's so much more fluid on the perimeter and extremely consistent," another source close to Lowry said. "You rarely see a sharp decline in terms of his production. It's helped his demeanor and his disposition. He's extremely positive about himself, and he's been finishing games better. He wants to win as badly as everyone else does, and he certainly understands the importance of this year."

Lowry is currently in the second year of a four-year, $48 million contract (fourth-year player option) and feels comfortable in Toronto and wants to finish his career there.

"At the end of the day, this is where I want to be," he says. "Hopefully it works out that way."