Kyle Lowry jokingly grumbled at DeMar DeRozan in the post-game locker-room, blaming his teammate for the horde of reporters that was crowding their lockers.
The crowd was waiting to speak to DeRozan, who’s locker is beside Lowry’s.
DeRozan apologized for his point guard’s behaviour, saying — through with a wide grin — “We’re like a married couple.”
In truth, Lowry and the Raptors were breathing a huge sigh of relief Wednesday night after DeRozan made a sparkling return from his 21-game injury layoff, scoring a team-high 20 points in a 100-84 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Yeah, definitely (it felt good), just to play with my guys, honestly,” DeRozan said. “Just get back out there with them. It’s been tough sitting out this many games, just watching. It felt good to get back out there.”
With his tiny daughter Diar watching from courtside, dressed in a Raptors jersey with “Mini DeRozan” across the back, the Raptors all-star received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 19,800 at the Air Canada Centre when announced in the starting lineup. There were more cheers when he scored his first points in nearly two months just under two minutes into the game, on a fadeaway jump shot that was classic DeRozan.
When asked if DeRozan brings a sense of much-needed calm to the team, coach Dwane Casey replied, saying “You think?”
“And not only that, he makes great decisions,” Casey continued. “When things get helter-skelter, when we call a play, one of the plays we’ve been running for a while or whatever it is, there’s a calmness about him.
“The ball is secure, he makes great decisions, it allows Kyle to space out and spot up. . .Lou (Williams), whoever it is. He can quarterback as well as score.”
Williams finished with 19 points for Toronto (26-12), while Lowry had 18 points and 12 assists. Jonas Valanciunas added 12 points, while Amir Johnson finished with 10.
But the night belonged to DeRozan, who had been sidelined since he tore his groin tending driving hard to the basket on Nov. 28 versus Dallas. The Raptors initially managed well without him, winning 11 of their first 15 games. But they had dropped five of their previous six before Wednesday, falling from first place in the Eastern Conference to third.
And looming Friday: the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks.
“Yes it was great to have DeMar back, I’m happy, we’re all excited, he looked good,” Lowry said. “Very comfortable (with him). Get some guys some open shots, take some attention off me, and it’s always good when you get your all-star back, a guy who can get 20 points on 14 shots in such an efficient way.”
DeRozan would shoot 9-for-14 overall in 29 minutes of floor time on a night that saw Toronto lead the entire game, and enjoy a 16-point advantage before halftime.
Philly made a run to come to within two points just before the halftime break, but it was virtually all-Raptors the rest of the way.
They led 71-61 heading into the fourth quarter, then a bucket by DeRozan followed up by back-to-back three-pointers from Lowry stretched Toronto’s advantage to 96-78 with 3:16 to play. That put the game out of reach.
The aim was to play it safe with DeRozan in his return, by managing his minutes. DeRozan admitted there was a set amount of minutes he was permitted to be on the floor, and then when asked if he blew by that mark, Lowry interjected from his locker next door: “Yup!”
“Because once I’m out there I want to play,” said DeRozan, who’d missed just 11 games total over his previous five seasons in the NBA. “I just wanted to see how I feel. Get that first one under my belt and go from there.”
DeRozan also had four rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block.
“He showed a lot of patience,” Williams said of DeRozan’s return. “He was poised. He took whatever was given to him. He didn’t rush a lot of shots. He played well.”
DeRozan, who returned to practice just over a week ago, said his goal going into the much-anticipated night was to stay “level-headed” and treat it like a normal game.
“I didn’t want to get too high on it. I understood I still had to come out here and play,” he said. “I didn’t want to go out there and try to do too much. Just played within the rhythm of the game.”
He said his conditioning was better than he expected.
“I thought I was going to be out there huffing and puffing but I felt good,” he said.
The Raptors outshot their visitors 46 per cent to 39 per cent, and won the battle of the boards 49-45.
Michael Carter-Williams scored 29 points to top the Sixers (7-31).
“We have a lot of respect for this program,” Philly coach Brett Brown said of Toronto. “We feel we can learn from Toronto in our pursuit of rebuilding a program in Philadelphia.”
DeRozan led the way with his six points in the first quarter, as the Raptors raced out to a 13-0 lead. Williams drained a three at the buzzer to send Toronto into the second quarter with a 34-19 lead.
A dunk by Tyler Hansbrough gave the Raptors a 16-point lead midway through the second, but the Sixers went on a 21-7 run, capped by a driving dunk from Carter-Williams, to cut Toronto’s advantage to just two points with 1:11 to play. The Raptors led 50-46 at halftime.
A three-pointer by Williams that put Toronto up by 13 points punctuated a third quarter that saw the Raptors outscore Philly 21-15.