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Lewenberg: Lowry carries Raptors on eve of All-Star picks

Josh Lewenberg

1/30/2014 9:21:00 AM

TORONTO - For the second time in less than a month, Kyle Lowry heard MVP chants rain down at him as he stepped to the line nearing the conclusion of yet another remarkable performance.

"Yeah, [I heard them]," he said. "They made me miss the free throw."

A year ago, Lowry's post-game antics may not have been so well received but what was snide and snarky is now endearing quick wit.

The sound he heard as he missed that free throw was less about his candidacy for an award nobody actually expects him to win - though he has been the Raptors' MVP - than it was a sentiment of appreciation. Often misunderstood, Lowry has finally found something in Toronto that had eluded him for seven seasons prior.

Lowry has found a team that fits him like a glove, a locker room filled with players who hang on his every word and a city that is ready to embrace him as their own. Lowry has found a home.

"I'm just playing," said the Raptors' point guard, after eclipsing 30 points for the second straight game - the first time he's accomplished that feat as a pro - carrying his team to 98-83 wire-to-wire win over the Magic on Wednesday.

"My team, they expect me to do a certain thing every night and when you go out there and play for these guys that give you everything they got in this locker room, you don't want to disappoint them."

Lowry had scored 31 in Monday's thrilling victory over the Nets. Two days later, it was a near triple-double, a season-best 33 points to go along with 11 assists and seven rebounds. All of this without Toronto's leading scorer.

DeMar DeRozan continues to sit out, nursing a sprained left ankle that is steadily improving, according to the Raptors' guard. On Wednesday, he watched from the locker room because, as he insisted, he couldn't bare to be a well-dressed spectator on the Raptors' bench. What he saw was a team that has come together in his absence and a player, in Lowry, who has taken his game to a whole new level.

By the end of the first quarter, Lowry had 17 points, perfect on all five of his three-point attempts. The Raptors, as a team, connected on their first nine treys, making 11 of 14 in the opening half. When his team made their way to the locker room at intermission, Lowry had scored or assisted on 12 of the Raptors' 17 field goals in his 18 first-half minutes. The lead was 15.

"He's stepped it up," coach Dwane Casey said of his point guard. "He set the tone in the first half with his threes, just his aggressive play means a lot."

He seemed to bring out the best in everybody. Amir Johnson had his best game in well over a month, scoring 22 points and adding 11 boards. Jonas Valanciunas, who was named to the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend earlier in the evening, recorded his 16th double-double of the season with 14 points and 15 rebounds. Lowry's fingerprints were all over the team's effort.

"You can't say enough," Casey continued. "I just hope, I keep my fingers crossed that the coaches voted him in [to the All-Star game] because he deserves it. He's one of the best point guards in the league right now."

Lowry has made his case loud and clear - though both 30-point performances have come after the coaches' ballots for All-Star reserves were collected on Sunday - and his fate will be revealed on Thursday.

The 27-year-old leads the East in assists in January, averaging 8.3, hitting more threes (49) than any player in the league, shooting them at a 46 per cent clip and leading his team to their second consecutive winning month.

On Monday, he became the first player this season to record at least 30 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals in a game, a feat that was only accomplished by LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant last year.

You have to go deep into the franchise's not-so-rich history to find a point guard that even comes close to the level that Lowry is playing at right now. Damon Stoudamire, perhaps? It's been a while.

Casey has been pumping Lowry's tires around the league and hopes that will tip the scale in his favour when the All-Star subs are revealed. As it turns out, maybe they should have sent his backup on the campaign trail.

"Kyle is an unbelievable player," said Greivis Vasquez, who started Wednesday in place of the injured DeRozan on Wednesday. "He's doing great things, not just for the team but for the city and that's huge."

"I'll tell you this, he should make it," he continued. "It's not because I'm his teammate, the numbers don't lie. I mean, I'm seeing it, watching it and I'm enjoying it."

As it happens, Lowry's not holding his breath. Although he would welcome the honour with open arms, he's acknowledged that, of the two, DeRozan will likely be the one to get the call.

One way or another, Lowry has 14 teammates, a coach, and the bulk of a city that believes he's an All-Star. Regardless of the result Thursday evening - as the Raptors land in Denver to begin a five-game road swing - that is not likely to change.