SPORTS

Jonas Valanciunas has career-high night to lift Raptors to 104-100 win over Suns

11/24/2014 10:05 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - The final nail-biting minute of the Toronto Raptors' win over the Phoenix Suns on Monday saw a couple of huge offensive rebounds and a Kyle Lowry steal that saw the point guard go sprawling to floor like a football player for the umpteenth time of the night.

It wasn't pretty, but it did the job. And it vaulted the Raptors into a tie with the Memphis Grizzlies for the best record in the NBA — 12-2.

"Again, we found a way," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey.

"One night it's free throws, one night it's jump balls, one night it's steals, one night it's rebounds. . . or one night it's going to be rebounds," Casey added, to laughter from the media (Toronto was outrebounded 42-37). "It's a growth that we're having, is finding ways to win."

On this night it was Jonas Valanciunas, who scored a career-high 27 points and hauled down 11 rebounds in the Raptors' 104-100 victory over Suns. DeMar DeRozan added 23 points for the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors, who stretched their winning streak to five games.

Lou Williams, named the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, added 17, and Lowry — who was at his scrappy best, prompting chants of "M-V-P!" from the Air Canada Centre crowd — finished with 14 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds.

"Each night it's going to be a different story, and each night there is going to be a different star of the story, and tonight it was JV," Casey said of Valanciunas.

The Raptors led for much of the night against a Suns team that had won four straight, and took an 81-66 advantage into the fourth quarter, quickly stretching it to 17.

But the Suns, who were looking to end their six-game road trip on a winning note, fought back and three consecutive three-pointers from Isaiah Thomas capped a 14-0 run that pulled Phoenix to within three points.

Thomas's fourth shot from behind the arc put the Suns within a point with 3:35 to play, then Bledsoe converted a three-point play with just under two minutes to play to tie the game 98-98.

Patrick Patterson and DeRozan each got their hands on key offensive rebounds, then Patterson drained two free throws to put Toronto up by two with 35 seconds left.

With the capacity Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,800 — including Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic and Bruce Heyman, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada — on its feet, Lowry grabbed a loose ball that ended up in a dog pile at centre court. He won the ensuing jump ball against Thomas, sealing Toronto's victory, and sending happy fans home to the tune of Black Eyed Peas "Gotta Feeling."

"It was huge," Casey said of Lowry's hustle play. "That last play when he dove on the ball and just poked it away, and caught them sleeping was huge in that situation. He just found a way to get it. . . Kyle always kind of finds a way to find those big plays down the stretch. It is just his nature, he is just a pit bull."

Eric Bledsoe had 25 points for the Suns, who were playing the finale of their six-game road trip.

The Raptors were coming off a 110-93 win over Cleveland on Saturday that saw them rebound from being 18 points down. Casey cautioned, once again, about getting too excited over the team's franchise-best start, saying his team has plenty of room for improvement.

Once again, he needn't have worried.

Valanciunas made 10 of his 11 shots on the night, as the Raptors outscored the Suns 52-36 in the paint.

The Lithuanian centre shrugged off the performance in the post-game locker-room, saying "I'm telling that every time I talk with you guys, I was just doing my job. I was rebounding the ball, trying to get open, setting good screens, that's my game.

"It's nothing special in my game, I'm just a fighter," he added.

When someone asked "Like Mike Tyson?" and pointed to Valanciunas's T-shirt — with Mike Tyson on the front, Valanciunas answered: "Not like that, but pretty much the same."

Lowry was at his tough-as-nails best, bringing the fans to their feet with "M-V-P!" chants during one superb stretch in the third quarter.

"He had a sequence where he got the block, loose ball, got the steal, got the assist and then the charge," Chuck Hayes said. "Unbelievable. That shows our leader, man."

The game had the makings of a homecoming for Tyler Ennis. The 20-year-old rookie from nearby Brampton, Ont., was taken No. 20 in last summer's NBA draft. But it wasn't to be, as Ennis is behind three point guards on the Suns' depth chart — Goran Dragic, Bledsoe, and Thomas — and was listed as inactive against Toronto.

The game also marked the return of Raptors forward James Johnson, who missed three games after he rolled his ankle stepping on a cameraman. Johnson played just four minutes.

Valanciunas had 15 points — three shy of his season-high — in a first quarter that saw Toronto trail by seven. The Raptors went on a 14-2 run capped by a running jumper from DeRozan to go ahead by five, and led 29-26 going into the second.

Ross was fouled on a three-point attempt and his free throws gave the Raptors a 10-point lead with just under five minutes to play in the second quarter, and Toronto took a 54-48 advantage into the halftime break.

The Raptors outscored their visitors 27-18 and shot 56 per cent in the third quarter, and led by 15 with a quarter left to play.

Toronto visits Atlanta on Wednesday, then return home to host Dallas on Friday.

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