After Kyle Lowry again voiced his displeasure over the DeMar DeRozan trade, Kawhi Leonard, the player the Toronto Raptors got in return, made some noise against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Leonard once again was almost an unstoppable force for the Raptors on Wednesday night, scoring on daring drives to the basket or creating his own shot on the perimeter.
It added up to a 36-point, nine-rebound performance for the determined forward, which went a long way toward the Raptors (21-5) earning a 113-102 victory over the 76ers (17-9) at Scotiabank Arena.
“He’s an immense talent, he really is an immense talent,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “And when the stakes go up a little bit he’s going to play his hand a little harder. I think the juice gets flowing and it gets him a little bouncier with his three-ball and a little quicker with the ball in transition.”
Jonas Valanciunas came off the bench to record a season-high 26 points to go with eight rebounds. Jimmy Butler scored 38 points to lead Philadelphia.
“Our bench did an unbelievable job,” Lowry said. “I know they’re trying to find their way and tonight was one of those games where they kind of got it clicking.”
It was an enjoyable, fast-paced tilt in which the lead shifted back and forth with the Raptors holding a tenuous 78-77 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
There the Raptors then shifted into high gear, erupting on a 12-2 run early in the quarter that secured Toronto a more comfortable 90-81 advantage with just over nine minutes left.
Leonard was a factor in every facet of the game, poking the ball loose on defence for Pascal Siakam, who romped down the floor for a jam that made the score 98-88.
And it was Leonard himself him put an exclamation point on his excellent night, going coast to coast for a delightful slam that put Toronto ahead 103-88 with just under four minutes left.
The Raptors were coming off just their fifth loss of the season on Monday at home, when they fell 106-103 to the Denver Nuggets. That snapped an eight-game win streak.
Toronto had already defeated Philadelphia once this season, and rather handily, cruising to a 129-112 victory on Oct. 30. But that was before the 76ers added Butler, an explosive swingman, to their lineup in a big trade with Minnesota last month.
With Butler in the lineup, the 76ers arrived in Toronto having run off eight wins over their previous 10 games. Butler has played a big role during that surge, averaging 18.1 points.
Along with being a solid offensive threat, Butler is also tenacious on defence as Toronto coach Nick Nurse noted.
“He’s serious about playing defence and it rubs off on the other guys and it’s really improved them as a team,” Nurse said before the game.
Lowry, the Toronto point guard, has been at his ornery best – both on and off the court – all season, and chose this week to launch another dart toward Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president.
In an interview with Rachel Nichols of ESPN, Lowry said he felt “betrayed” when the organization traded DeRozan, his best friend, to the San Antonio Spurs during the off season.
The Raptors career leading scorer was the primary offering the Raptors had to surrender in order to land Leonard, a deal that Ujiri signed off on and so far has paid big dividends for Toronto.
“I felt betrayed because he [DeRozan] felt betrayed because that’s my guy, that’s my best friend,” Lowry told ESPN.
Lowry was then asked about his ongoing relationship with Ujiri, and his response was icy.
“He’s the president of the basketball operations and that’s it,” Lowry said flatly.
“For me, I come here and do my job.”
It’s a job that pays him well, thanks to Ujiri, who handed the 32-year-old a three-year, US$100-million contract in 2017.
Ujiri told ESPN that from his perspective he and his point guard do not have an acrimonious relationship.
“Kyle Lowry is always mad at me, every year,” Ujiri said with a laugh during an appearance on ESPN’s The Jump basketball show.
There were plenty of luminaries on hand for Wednesday’s game, including former Toronto Blue Jay Joe Carter and former Raptor Chris Bosh, who both received resounding cheers from the capacity crowd when introduced during a stoppage of play early in the opening quarter.
Former Raptor Tracy McGrady was also on hand.
They were taking part in the club’s Mandela 100 celebrations, commemorating what would have been the 100th birthday this year of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary.
The 76ers carried the play to Toronto in the opening quarter, hitting on 52.2 per cent (12-of-23) of their shots from the floor, to take a 29-23 lead.
The Raptors started to cruise in the second quarter and mounted a 15-4 run, with Leonard chipping in for seven of the points, which helped send Toronto into the break with a 53-49 lead.
Leonard had 21 of his total in the first half.
The lead bounced around a bit with the 76ers taking a 74-73 lead on three made free throws by Mike Muscala before Leonard responded with a long-distant three that put Toronto up 77-74.