Kyle Lowry made a 29-point bang in his return to the court, while Jonas Valanciunas responded to an embarrassing and emotional few days with a career-best performance, leading the Toronto Raptors to victory Wednesday and inching closer to a division title.
There has been a blazing-hot spotlight on 6-foot-11 Valanciunas this week after he was charged with an impaired driving offence in Monday's early hours. The storyline high jacked the focus from the Raptors' feel-good run to the playoffs. But the centre's career-high 26 points and 12 rebounds helped the Raptors to a 125-114 win over the lowly Philadelphia 76ers to remain atop the Atlantic Division in the home stretch of the regular season.
"It's been a rough couple of days. ... I had to find the energy to come out and fight," said Valanciunas, speaking for the first time this week, agreeing that this incident has forced him to mature and re-focus. "I have really good teammates and they did their best to support me to keep my head up. ... I've been focusing 150 per cent more."
Kyle Lowry, who has missed the last three games with a bruised left knee, returned to the point showing little rust. Arguably the Raptors' most important player, Lowry led all scorers and dished out eight assists over 38 minutes.
DeMar DeRozan had 17 points, despite suffering a gash near his eye in a collision with Philly's Hollis Thompson that required three stitches. Amir Johnson missed a fourth straight game with a sore right ankle, but Patrick Patterson contributed 17 points starting in his place.
Playing the 17-61 76ers was hardly a contest that prepares a squad for the playoffs. They are the second-worst team in the NBA, one that had a 26-game losing streak this year and starts a collection of players many say don't even belong in the NBA. It's a franchise with a good shot at landing Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins in the draft this June.
Still, the Raptors had frequent defensive letdowns and seldom mustered a big lead. Henry Sims got loose for 22 points, leading the way for Philadelphia. But the Raptors took care of business and completed the season sweep of the 76ers for the first time in team history.
It's been a humiliating few days for 21-year-old Valanciunas, from the arrest in Wasaga Beach, Ont., to meetings with Raptors brass and apologies to the team. Every media outlet in the city turned out to Tuesday's practice for his reaction, but Valanciunas watched his teammates face their questions instead of taking them himself. They praised his apology, yet admitted their 'little brother" made a costly and foolish mistake. Valanciunas had said nothing until after Wednesday night's game.
"I expected it," said Lowry of the big performance by Valanciunas. "This is our sanctuary – basketball – it's our secret spot. It's a place guys can release a lot of energy and intensity. He's 21, and every day is part of a learning process for him."
NBA rules dictate that the league determines if a punishment is warranted for a player after his legal process is complete. His court date is scheduled for April 22, during the first round of the playoffs.
"He came up big, and that shows you he's not letting anything else affect him," DeRozan said. "He did what he did, he apologized, he understands what's at stake, and he understands we need him."
The Raptors are working to tighten their hold on the No. 3 seed in the east as the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets nip relentlessly at their heels. The Bulls have the same record but the Raptors hold the tie-breaker between the two. If the playoffs began today, Toronto would face the Washington Wizards in the first round and if they advance, likely the Indiana Pacers. But if the Bulls pass the Raptors, Toronto would likely face the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1 and the powerhouse Miami Heat in Round 2.
The Raptors have won the last four versus the Rockets, Pacers and Bucks and now 76ers. That's seven of their last eight.
Still, head coach Dwane Casey was very unhappy with the defensive play and says fixing that is his top priority now.
"If we don't, it's going to be a short ride if we continue to play defense like we're playing now," Casey said.
Toronto's final stretch of opponents seems to pose plenty of chances for more victories – the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks and two match-ups with the New York Knicks, starting Friday at home. The Raptors appear on course to break a franchise record for most wins in a season (47, set in both 2007 and 2001).
A Toronto win Friday or a Brooklyn loss would clinch the division for the 46-32 Raptors.
"My thing is us, we have to take care of our business ... [a division title] is good, but it's not a have-to goal," Casey said. "A have-to goal is containing the ball on the perimeter and keeping people in front of us."