TORONTO - Kyle Lowry
is playing the best basketball of his eight-year career and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Raptors point guard, his team or its general manager.
Coming into camp in the best shape of his life, ahead of a contract season for the 27-year-old, Lowry seemed determined to change the league-wide perception of him following a disappointing 2012-13 campaign.
In the process he has raised his expected market value while fuelling the Raptors resurgence, dating back to the trade of his best friend, Rudy Gay
"He's playing at the highest level I have seen," Dwane Casey said after Lowry's season-high 32 points led Toronto past the Knicks, 115-110 Saturday, sweeping a weekend home-and-home set with New York. "He is playing with such force and such confidence.
"That's him, man," said DeMar DeRozan
, who added 20 points in the victory. "He could do that every night if he really wanted to, scoring-wise. We feed off him, that's our point guard, we look to him in late-game situations and he always comes through."
DeRozan was effusive in his praise of his teammate.
"I think this is the best I've seen him play, ever since he was in Houston and had that tremendous year,” DeRozan continued. “We need that from him and he's been bringing it every night and that's why we've been winning."
Lowry flirted with a triple-double against the undermanned Knicks, matching his season-high of 11 assists to go along with eight boards. In his second year with the Raptors, Lowry has recorded at least six dimes in 20 consecutive games, including the last 10 without his good friend Gay.
Since Gay was traded earlier in the month, the Raptors have won seven of 10 games, exceeding 20 assists in eight of them. Despite the distractions that accompanied that trade and the subsequent rumours surrounding his future with the team, Lowry has been a pro.
"With all the trade rumours and all the bull that's going around, he's been positive and upbeat and a leader from that standpoint," credited Casey. "He could have gone in a shell and kind of isolated himself from everybody else but he's dived in and been positive about it, so I'm happy for him and proud of him for handling himself that way."
For Lowry, it seems like a no-brainer. He's auditioning for potential suitors - should general manager Masai Ujiri find an offer that catches his eye - he's playing for a new contract in the offseason and, most importantly, he's too competitive, too prideful to sulk.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked rhetorically. "It's my job, it's a business. Be mad? It is what it is to me. I'm really not worried about it."
After a fourth-quarter comeback sealed a victory in New York on Friday, the Raptors carried their momentum over in front of a sold-out Air Canada Centre crowd 24 hours later. They took an early lead and never relinquished it, despite a late push from the visitors, playing without Carmelo Anthony
- the league's second-leading scorer - for the second straight night.
As the Knicks made their final run, to no avail, frustrated big man Tyson Chandler
got tangled up with Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas
. It was Lowry who stepped in to defend his young teammate and prevent any altercation.
"I'm not a vocal leader, I'm more of an action leader," said Lowry, who has scored 20 or more in four of the last five games. "We've got a bunch of guys in this locker room who are soldiers and troupers and they're going to follow whoever's leading them on the court."
With a pair of wins over the Knicks, the Raptors extended their lead in the Atlantic Division to a full game over Boston, four over Brooklyn and five ahead of New York and Philadelphia.
Taking advantage of a weak conference and an injury-plagued division, the Raptors are moving the ball, playing hard on defence and carrying themselves with more confidence than they have in the three-year Casey era.
One of the biggest beneficiaries has been sophomore guard Terrence Ross
Ross made a career-best seven three point shots on 11 attempts, scoring 23 points in just under 32 minutes on Saturday.
"T-Ross is firing that ball and nobody is even second guessing him when he fires it," Lowry said of his teammate. "Tonight, he was 7-of-11 and, if he went 1-for-11, we would still tell him to shoot the ball. I think he knows that we all have confidence in him and that's playing a big part in the way he's playing."
"He's just playing confident," DeRozan added. "I tell him, ‘Don't go out there second guessing yourself. You have the ability to do anything on that court, you jump higher than everybody on that court, you're a great shooter, you could do so much just use it and don't worry about messing up so much.' That's what he's doing."
The Raptors will rest up on Sunday before traveling to Chicago for a meeting with the Bulls on New Year's Eve.