TORONTO - On the eve of the All-Star starters announcement, just before the league's coaches begin to fill out their ballots for the reserves, DeMar DeRozan made his case a little bit more compelling.
A career performance, just when his team needed it most, may be enough to sway a vote or two and send the Raptors fifth-year guard to New Orleans.
"Oh man, he's definitely been playing well, All-Star level," said Amir Johnson, shortly after watching his teammate go off for a career-high 40 points in the Raptors come-from-behind win, 93-85 over the Mavericks on Wednesday. "He's a big reason why we've been so successful."
Coming into the game, the Raptors had dropped three of four, all to losing teams missing their best player. The 25-win Mavericks were a different animal, though they too were without leading scorer Dirk Nowitzki, and after 12 minutes this had disaster written all over it.
"I thought it was going to be a blow out," Dwane Casey admitted, his team down by 19 going into the second quarter, trailing by as many as 21 in the first.
DeRozan kept his team afloat in the first half. He scored 12 of their 15 first-quarter points, accounting for four of their five field goals. He was playing well, having the sort of outing that winds up forcing its way into the bottom of a somber game story, a footnote at the end of another horrific defeat. Then he took his game, and most importantly his team, to another level, a ridiculous level.
"He got in the flow of the game," Casey said of DeRozan, who scored 15 points in the third quarter, then another nine in the fourth, missing just two shots in the second half. "He was running the pick-and-roll, they started blitzing him, he did a good job of finding [his teammates] and then the ball found him back and that was good. It was a growth on his part from being double teamed but being patient enough to get the ball back and be able to score."
The Raptors' guard was remarkable coming out of the break, knocking down off balance jumpers, getting to the rim at will but most importantly, he was efficient and he got to the free throw line. DeRozan needed just 22 shots to become the seventh player in franchise history to record 40 points, connecting on nine of 14 attempts from the stripe and knocking down his only three-pointer.
He matched his previous career-high - 37, set three times - with a nifty spin and reverse layup, solidifying a new personal best on the subsequent free throw with 3:38 remaining. For him, the accomplishment was gravy. Despite his recent fourth-quarter struggles, DeRozan came through for his team in the clutch. That three-point play broke the tie and gave the Raptors a lead they would go on to hold for the duration of the night.
"This loss would have hurt," DeRozan said. "We didn't want to lose three in a row. I just told myself, just try to do as much as I can to win, try to pull this one off and keep my team in it."
DeRozan was saddled with more of the offensive burden on Wednesday, as fellow All-Star candidate Kyle Lowry battled a stomach flu that had the Raptors' point guard running to the locker room, back and forth throughout the evening.
Lowry scored just three points, misfiring on all 10 of his field goal attempts in 35 hard-fought minutes.
"Once I [saw] Kyle go back [to the locker room] and he came back, he had his head down and holding his stomach, I could tell he wasn't feeling too well," DeRozan said.
"He didn't stop playing," Casey said, crediting Lowry. "He dove on the floor, got his hands on loose balls, he affected the game without scoring."
Casey continues to contact his fellow coaches, campaigning for both guards to get the nod and represent the Raptors as reserves in next month's All-Star game, set to take place in New Orleans on Feb. 16. The starters for both East and West teams will be announced live on TNT on Thursday and the reserves, to be voted in by the coaches, will be revealed a week later, also on TNT.
With representatives from Miami and Indiana expected to monopolize the Eastern Conference roster, it's unlikely Toronto will have more than one All-Star. Of the two, DeRozan's bid has been gaining some traction, according to league sources.
Entering Wednesday's games, DeRozan ranked 12th in the NBA in scoring, fifth in the East and has tallied 20 or more points in nine of 12 contests during the month of January.
Returning to Toronto for the second time since last season's trade, Jose Calderon - beloved Raptors alum - was genuinely proud of Lowry and long-time teammate DeRozan.
"They're just playing better, they just have that confidence and they're playing at a very high level every game," Calderon said of the Raptors' backcourt duo prior to Wednesday's game. "I really enjoy watching them and it's great. Hopefully they get that call and they can be in New Orleans. It's always great to see your [former] teammates being successful and I'm really happy for them."
Like his first return, as a member of the Pistons last year, Calderon was greeted by a standing ovation during pre-game introductions at the Air Canada Centre. Another former Raptor, Vince Carter, received a mixed reception, which was verging on positive for the first time since his messy divorce with the franchise nearly nine years ago.
Thanks to another admirable performance from the Raptors bench, who helped turn things around in the second quarter, and some late-game heroics from the slumping Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, DeRozan's career night was not wasted.
Greivis Vasquez scored a season-high 17 to go along with seven assists, also picking up the slack for the flu-ridden Lowry. Meanwhile, Casey entrusted both Johnson and Valanciunas with crucial fourth-quarter playing time despite subpar starts, the frontcourt duo combining for 10 points in that final period.
The Raptors 21-point comeback victory was their largest of the year, besting last month's win in Dallas, where they overcame a 19-point deficit. Toronto sweeps the season series with the Mavs for the second time in franchise history and first since 1996-97, wrapping up the first half of the campaign with a winning record.
"We're ahead of schedule," Casey said, assessing his team's progress 41 games in. "We're winning some games in our building and we're happy with that."
"But we're still not a finished product. [We] have a lot of work to do."