ORLANDO - It's been a rewarding season for Kyle Lowry, the Raptors' most important player, but it's also been a long one.
The eighth-year point guard played in his 500th career game on Sunday, a 98-93 win over the Orlando Magic.
Does he feel like he's played in that many games?
"No," he said initially, before reconsidering. "I mean, this season, yeah."
"This is a game I love to play," the 28-year-old continued. "I've probably played 500 more in street ball games growing up. So this is a great accomplishment for me to say I've made it that far."
After missing 14 games last year, his first in Toronto, Lowry is the Raptors' only starter to suit up in every game this season. He's 10th in the NBA in minutes played and is fighting through a number of ailments, but with fewer than 10 contests remaining before he makes his first playoff appearance in five years, Lowry's still the engine that drives his team.
Despite taking a 19-point lead into third quarter - their largest halftime advantage of the season - the Raptors began to come apart in the second half.
The Magic, down by as many as 21 points, hit 22 of their final 33 shots and tied the game early in the fourth.
With his team up by two, Lowry misfired on a long three-point shot, absorbing a fair amount of contact on the play, immediately turning to give official Eli Roe the trademark Lowry scowl. Scorned after the no-call, Lowry would get the ball back off of an Amir Johnson offensive rebound and drain the same shot he had just missed, shooting another look at Roe on the way down the court.
We've seen this before. Lowry was fired up.
The Raptors point guard scored nine of his 16 points in the final quarter, holding off the Magic, who were coming hard.
Dwane Casey continues to seek passable opportunities to manufacture rest for Lowry, but they've proven few and far between. As he and DeMar DeRozan sat to end the third and begin the fourth, the lead dwindled down and in came Toronto's star backcourt.
Lowry logged 35 minutes while DeRozan - who scored 15 of his 28 points at the line - played 38.
"It's tricky," Casey admitted. "It's tricky to make sure we cut their minutes and not give up leads. It's something we have to learn to do, but I thought the second unit did their job. They built a lead. Now it's up to the starters coming back in. I wasn't going to play them a lot the second half, but they kept chipping away at it so I couldn't wholesale sub the second unit in."
After a quiet first half, Lowry - to his own admission - began the second half lacking the "energy and effort" he's become synonymous with. The wear and tear of a long season has taken its toll and he, understandably, has to pick his spots, but there he was when his team needed him most.
The Raptors needed this win with games against the Heat, Rockets and Pacers on deck.
"We're happy about the win but we cannot be satisfied about the way we got it," Casey said. "“The hardest thing to do in this league is to play with a lead and that's something we have to learn to do."
Big night for JV
In a tough matchup against the Magic's Nikola Vucevic, Jonas Valanciunas did not back down and more than held his own. The Raptors sophomore centre got off to a hot start, scoring 10 of his 20 points in the first quarter.
"They are two good, young players that are coming up in this league," Casey said of Valanciunas and Vucevic, who led Orlando with 22 points and 10 rebounds. "So you will see them go at each other a lot in the future."
Bench comes through in second quarter
Without Patrick Patterson - who could return Monday in Miami, but missed his 13th straight with an elbow injury - the Raptors' second unit has under-performed. Beginning the second quarter with an unconventional lineup that included Nando De Colo running the point and Landry Fields, who hasn't played much since a spot-start early in March, the reserves gave Toronto a lift that ballooned the lead going into intermission.
"They really gave us a great boost," Lowry said of the bench. "They pretty much won the game in the second quarter."
Vasquez gets stitched up
After getting hit in the face early in the game, Greivis Vasquez required five stitches to close a gash below his left eye. He return late in the first half with a bandage covering the wound and finished the game with five points in 15 minutes of action.
Toronto matched a franchise record with its 20th road win of the season Friday, one shy of finishing the season above .500 away from home for the first time in team history. They have four road games to go, three against losing teams.
"I thought he did a heck of a job of initiating the offence, being in attack mode," said Casey on De Colo, who played the point for the first time as a Raptor in the second quarter. "We know he can pass the ball but what he did tonight was get to the rim. He grew on us as a coaching staff tonight... not that he wasn't there in the beginning."