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The Globe and Mail

As Toronto’s all-star spotlight fades, Raptors must avoid a second-half slide

Eastern Conference guard DeMar DeRozan, of the Toronto Raptors, dunks against the Western Conference during the NBA all-star game in Toronto on Feb. 14.


Now that the NBA's biggest yearly party has left town, along with the celebrities, hangers-on and 336 international media members, the Toronto Raptors must fight off the post-NBA All-Star blahs and avoid a second-half slide.

The 35-17 Raptors are on course to win their division for the third consecutive season.  After spending slightly more time on the road in the early months, they'll enjoy a little home-heavier second half, where they're 18-6 so far. Toronto's All-Stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are both enjoying career seasons. But memories of last year linger, when Lowry was a different player after his All-Star stint, the squad collapsed defensively, and was swept in the first round of the playoffs.

Lowry and DeRozan must digest and move on from an all-consuming week. Lowry squared off against the likes of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in Saturday's wild three-point contest. Toronto's backcourt duo enjoyed emotional standing ovations from the Toronto faithful all weekend, along with bear hugs from Drake. Sunday, they played before a star-studded crowd with everyone from Spike Lee to Super Bowl winner Von Miller, Yao Ming to Justin Verlander and Kate Upton.

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Toronto managed a nearly identical 36-17 record in the first half of last year's season before going 13-16 after the break. They went 1-5 in their first six games after the mid-season spectacular.

This year's Raptors have a tall order upon their return on Friday, taking on the Bulls in Chicago right out of the gate. Currently holding down the second spot in the Eastern Conference, Toronto has five games in the first eight days back, including two road trips and a home contest versus the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers.

After playing 28 road games before the break, they have just 13 left out there. They've got 17 at Air Canada Centre, where they hold an 18-6 record this season.

But March will have stiff challenges. They'll take on many teams holding or contending for playoff spots – squads like Chicago, Indiana, Detroit, Oklahoma City, Boston and Atlanta.

Defensively at this point, the Raptors rank ninth out of the NBA's 30 teams and fifth offensively. They had a franchise-high 11-game win streak going back in late January, until they lost two of their final five before the break. The last of those was a complete collapse to the 17-37 Minnesota Timberwolves. The last words from Toronto coach Dwane Casey before the break were ones of disappointment at his squad's defensive effort.

Lowry and DeRozan gave the host city two guards in the All-Star Game for the first time since Gail Goodrich and Jerry West of the Lakers teamed up in the 1972 game, held in Los Angeles. DeRozan had an 18-point night in Sunday's All-Star Game in less than 19 minutes off the bench, while his pal Lowry started and had 14 points and 10 assists and five rebounds in 28 minutes.

Lowry didn't make it out of Saturday's first round of the three-point contest, but still played Toronto ambassador all week.

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"I wanted to shoot well for the fans, so it's kind of upsetting," said Lowry. [All-Star weekend] being in Toronto for the first time, I'm glad I was able to be here, be in front of my fans. It means a lot, it means the world. No matter what, I know they would still cheer me on.'

Lowry came into the break registering career per-game highs in points (21), rebounds (4.9) and steals (2.2) as well overall three-point percentage (39.2). Last season, before the break, he was shooting 42 per cent from the field and averaging 7.3 assists per game with 18.6 points. In the second half, he struggled with injuries and shot just 37 per centt and had 5.4 assists per night with 15.1 points.

DeRozan is enjoying career highs in points (23.4) and assists (4.1), and together they're the top-scoring backcourt currently in the East.

Once the season re-starts in a few days, the Raptors must prove whether they've developed a trait that the NBA's best teams share: consistency.

"We've got to come out aggressive, it's a whole new season for us, and we've got to understand that we're playing for something big," said DeRozan.  "It's not just to win games and get in the playoffs, but make some noise. These next 30 games will be like a teaching tool – to teach us how to win games every single night."

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