TORONTO - Toronto's Kyle Lowry had spent big chunks of Sunday's game on the bench, part of the coaching and medical staff's plan to manage the minutes of their battered and bruised team leader.
Unleashed in the fourth quarter, Lowry scored seven of his 25 points in the game's final minute to lift the Raptors to a 96-86 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
After three horrible quarters, the Raptors outscored the Hawks 36-15 in the final 12 minutes to seal the victory.
"We've got a group of guys who are resilient, we want to win games, we've got a goal in mind," Lowry said. "It's fun to win games and when you've found the recipe to win in the fourth, you have to stick with it."
Lowry also had four assists and four steals in just 27 minutes. With the Raptors poised to make their first playoff appearance in six years, the team is being careful with his playing time.
"He's had a lot of minutes," said coach Dwane Casey. "It's hard believe me, as a coach and for him as a competitor, it looks like we're going at each other but we both understand the situation. If it's close I may close my eyes and forget time, but we have to watch his minutes."
DeMar DeRozan added 21 points Sunday, while Jonas Valanciunas finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds, and Greivis Vasquez chipped in with 12 points for the Raptors (39-30).
Lowry, who has struggled with a groin injury in the past, wouldn't say if anything specific is sore.
"My full body has aches and pains right now," he said. "I don't think any player in the NBA right now feels 100 per cent. It's that time of year where everybody has knicks and knacks and bruises."
DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap scored 17 points apiece to top the Hawks (31-37), while Jeff Teague added 16.
Coming off a an energetic 119-118 loss in double overtime two nights earlier to Oklahoma City, the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors looked like a different team Sunday through three quarters of sloppy passes, horrible shooting and lackadaisical defence.
One highlight on an afternoon that had almost none: the return of The Raptor mascot, who missed over five months after rupturing an Achilles tendon during training camp.
Casey passed Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment boss Tim Leiweke in the hallway after the game, and told him it was like "pulling teeth, it was like going to the dentist's office that first half."
"We've got to be pros like I told our players, whether it's five o'clock in the morning, midnight, two o'clock, we've got to get ourselves going," Casey said. "With season ticket-holders paying big money to watch us play, we came out and gave them a bad performance in the first half."
Casey gave his players an earful at halftime.
"Aw man, he came in here yelling," DeRozan said. "Once Casey yells, you've got to do your job or you'll hear him yelling after the game. We understood ... we were still in the game and we were playing terrible that first half."
The Hawks, who are clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, led by as many as 14 points in the first half and were up by 71-60 heading into the fourth quarter.
Finally showing some life, the Raptors chipped away at the difference and when Johnson tipped in his own miss with 5:18 left to play, it tied the game 79-79.
Lowry scored on a hook shot with 44 seconds left to give the Raptors a five-point lead and some precious breathing room, then he stole the ball off an inbounds pass and scored again to help put the game away.
There was a scary moment late in the game when workhorse Amir Johnson went down in a heap clutching his left knee after Shelvin Mack had fallen awkwardly on it.
"You don't know if it's a soccer move (embellishment) or what," Casey said. "He had my heart in my throat there for a little bit."
Lowry called Johnson the team's "heart and soul."
"So when that happened it kind of scared us a little bit," Lowry said. "Oh yeah, I'm still scared when he falls. But he's a great player, he gives it all, and it makes everybody else give it their all too."
Added DeRozan: "I've seen Amir get hit by a Mack truck and get back up. One thing about Amir, he'll play through anything and everything, but he kind of scared me tonight. When he grabbed at the knee, I kind of cussed at him a little to make sure he was alright."
Johnson, who was limping in the locker-room after the game, said the initial pain was bad, but he was able to walk it off.
The Raptors had lost to the Hawks earlier in the week, dropping a 118-113 decision in overtime in Atlanta on Tuesday.
"We just lost focus," Millsap said on the Hawks' inability to close out Sunday's game. "Lost focus and they hit a few shots. We dropped our heads a little bit but we have to be more mentally tough."
Toronto got off to a poor start Sunday, turning over the ball seven times in the opening quarter. The Raptors shot just 28 per cent while allowing the Hawks to shoot 56 per cent.
Atlanta went up by 11 before leading 25-16 to end the quarter. A three-pointer by Millsap gave the Hawks a 14-point lead midway through the second.
But the Raptors closed the quarter with a 16-9 run that included a monstrous dunk by Terrence Ross and went into the locker-room at halftime trailing 49-42.
The Raptors carried that momentum into the third, cutting the Hawks' lead to two points on a hook shot by Valanciunas, but abruptly went cold again. Atlanta took an 11-point advantage into the final 12 minutes.
Notes: The Raptors are in Cleveland to face the Cavaliers on Tuesday, then meet the Celtics in Boston on Wednesday before returning home to host Boston on Friday. ... New Toronto FC goalkeeper Julio Cesar and Hockey Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler were at the game.