TORONTO - For the first time in three days, the most turbulent 72 hours of his life, Jonas Valanciunas was able to find an escape, an outlet for his ranging emotions.
"It's been a rough couple days," the Raptors centre admitted following Wednesday's game, speaking with the media for the first time since he was arrested for drunk driving earlier this week. He was unable to address the incident directly, as he has yet to meet with his lawyers.
"I found the power, found the energy to come out [and] fight," he continued. "I felt really good [because of the] fan support, thank you to them. That felt great, because everybody supported me. I say sorry and [am] learning. I'll be better."
Valanciunas wasn't sure how he would be received by the team's fans, feeling he had disappointed them, just as they did not know what to expect from him, returning to the court in the aftermath of Monday morning's events.
"Honestly, he was going to play like trash or he was going to play amazing," said Kyle Lowry after Toronto's 125-114 win over the 76ers. "He played amazing, like we expected."
The 21-year-old sophomore would go on to score a career-best 26 points to go along with 12 rebounds, hitting 10 of his 14 shots in 37 minutes of action.
Once the ball was thrown up, and for the two and a half hours that followed, the only thing that was on his mind was the task at hand.
"It's a tough situation for him to handle, to be going through," Lowry added, "but this is our sanctuary: basketball. We get a chance to be away from everything. Basketball is like our space, our secret spot and that's where guys can release a lot of energy and intensity."
Scoring the first four points of the game, Valanciunas came out with a fire, a purpose and an air of confidence. He has been playing some of the best basketball of his career and those off-court distractions could not derail him.
Leading the team with 23 double-doubles after recording just eight a year ago, Valanciunas has played 30 or more minutes and scored in double figures in eight straight games, matching a season-high.
The biggest difference has been his comfort level and self-assurance, according to his teammates. The game has slowed down for him, he's playing with patience and most importantly he's not getting down on himself.
"[He's] much more aggressive, much hungrier," said Lowry. "He wants the ball. Tonight he was literally yelling at me to give him the ball."
"He came up big," DeMar DeRozan stated. "That just shows you he's not letting everything else affect him, everything that's going on or the situation that happened. He's just going out and playing. He did what he did, it's over with, he apologized to us and he understands what's at stake and that we need him."
His big night couldn't have come at a better time. Valanciunas has some work to do. He knows this. On top of learning from his error in judgment, he'll have to win back the fans he let down. Wednesday's performance was the first step in turning the page.
Although Lowry eased into his return from a three-game absence, sidelined with a bruised left kneecap, he more than made his presence felt when his team needed him most.
The Raptors' starting point guard recorded four assists before attempting his first shot late in the opening quarter. By the second half he was up to his old tricks. Lowry scored 19 of his game-high 29 points in the final 24 minutes, including 10 in the fourth quarter.
"I was happy to be back there with my teammates, to be honest," he said after the game. "When you miss games you feel like you're letting your team down but it was great to be back out there with the fellas."
Prior to the game, Dwane Casey indicated there would be no restriction on Lowry's usage and sure enough he played the entire first quarter and logged 38 minutes on the night.
"[The week off] definitely helped my body rest but a week doesn't do anything," Lowry said. "It's going to take two months for me to actually be normally healthy again."
Amir Johnson got another precautionary night off, missing his third straight contest with a lingering right ankle injury, though he could have played if necessary and shouldn't be out much longer.
Nearing division title
With Toronto's victory and the Nets' loss in Orlando, the Raptors are now one win - or Brooklyn defeat - away from clinching their second division title in franchise history.
They can wrap up the Atlantic crown while also matching a franchise-record 47th win of the season in front of their home crowd on Friday when they host the Knicks.
The Raptors are a perfect 10-0 in games without at least one of their five starters (Lowry, DeRozan, Johnson, Valanciunas or Terrence Ross) this season.
"Our guys see the computers, they see the standings and the records but we can't play that way," Casey said of the team's defensive slippage, after allowing the lowly 76ers to score 114 points on 52 per cent shooting. "I just told them that we've got to pick our defence up and not have the mental letdowns that we're having defensively. It's nothing that we haven't seen before or any new trick plays. It's just one-on-one defence, blow-by's, our feet in the sand. There is a slippage."