By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
Philadelphia native and former Villanova Wildcat Kyle Lowry makes a triumphant return to his hometown Friday night, fresh off the announcement that he will be starting in this year’s NBA All-Star Game. After widely being considered a snub from last year’s game, a late surge by those passionate Toronto fans helped Lowry overtake Dwayne Wade and make the team for the first time. It was a well-deserved honor for the Raptors point guard, who has helped keep Toronto near the top of the East despite missing last year’s All-Star, DeMar DeRozan, for about a month and a half with a groin injury. As a result of his absence, Lowry has shouldered even more of the load for the Raptors this season, averaging career-highs across the board of 19.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 1.6 steals per game.
While that was terrific news for Raptors fans, it hasn’t been the best stretch recently for the team, as Toronto has gone just 3-8 in their last 11 games. Following this slump, the Raptors have fallen back to third place in the Eastern Conference, with Chicago right behind them and Cleveland coming up in the rear view with LeBron James’ return from injury. The way things are going, it’s entirely possible one of the best early season success stories might not find themselves with home court advantage in the playoffs in a couple months.
The biggest problem recently has been the downturn of their normally potent offense, which they need to boost a struggling defense. Toronto sports the 4th-best offensive rating in the NBA at 109.0 on the season, but that number has dropped to just 100.4 in January. Terrence Ross is mired in a shooting slump, and doesn’t bring much else to the table, so when he’s not shooting well, he’s a net-negative on the court. DeRozan has also been struggling with his shot after returning from the injury, and has gone 2-20 in the last two games, actually going scoreless in the team’s 3-point victory over the Bucks two games ago.
Nevertheless, one of those three recent wins was a home victory over the Sixers in Toronto last week. Sixers fan may remember that contest as the Michael Carter-Williams ‘trade rumors game’, where the point guard kept the Sixers hanging around throughout the contest before the Raptors pulled away in the fourth quarter. Despite missing Tony Wroten and Robert Covington (who was a late scratch with a shoulder injury), MCW had possibly his best performance of the year, scoring a season-high 29 points on a respectable 12-25 outing from the field. They’ll need a comparable performance from him tonight up against Lowry, who is sure to be energized both by the All-Star announcement and being back playing in front of friends and family.
Nerlens Noel is expected to be back in action tonight coming off his upper respiratory illness, while Luc Mbah a Moute is likely to miss his third straight game with a bruised knee. The Raptors may be without Jonas Valanciunas, who is questionable with a sore calf. Given the propensity for opposing teams to sit their starters against the Sixers of late, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them hold out their starting center. Toronto isn’t the type of team to beat themselves though, sporting the 4th-lowest turnover ratio in the league. If Philadelphia is to remain competitive, they’ll have to prevent Lowry from doing damage driving the lane, and hope the shooting slumps for DeRozan, Ross, and the rest continue. After losing to their biggest competition for the worst overall record, the Sixers will have to step things up when the Great White North pays Philadelphia a visit.