TORONTO — With his running mate DeMar DeRozan under the weather, Kyle Lowry decided to play for the both of them.
The Raptors guard poured in a career-high 43 points, including a jump shot with four seconds on the clock — the first game-winner of his NBA career — to lift Toronto to a 99-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, in a thrilling battle between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.
"It’s never a surprise for me," DeRozan said of his fellow all-star’s performance. "It’s moreso entertaining to watch, because I feel like I have the luxury to say ‘that’s my point guard,’ I’m able to watch him to do things like that, make it seem so effortless, and lead us to a victory."
The No. 2 Raptors (39-18) clinched the season series against the top-ranked Cavs (41-16), and broke a franchise record with their 10th consecutive home win.
Asked what was more special, his total points or his clutch game-winner, Lowry said: neither.
"I think it was that we won that game," he said. "That is all that matters. I think we grew tonight but now we have to continue to get better."
Terrence Ross added 15 points for Toronto, while Jonas Valanciunas, who took a hard elbow to the ribs from James and spent part of the third quarter being examined in the locker-room, finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. Bismack Biyombo chipped in with 11 points as Toronto set a new record with 10 consecutive home wins.
DeRozan’s 500th game was one to forget. The Raptors’ top scorer, battling flu-like symptoms all night, had just six points on 1-for-11 shooting, and in the post-game locker-room, Valanciunas jokingly donned a surgical mask, and offered another to assembled media.
"Felt terrible, but I told myself I was going to go out there and play regardless. It was tough, but I’m happy we got the win," DeRozan said.
Asked about the pride he felt in his teammates, he added "That’s what it’s all about. That’s our whole team right there. If we see one guy down, next guy got to step up and understand it’s about winning, and got to do everything we can to win."
LeBron James led the Cavs with 25 points. Kevin Love added 20 points, while Tristan Thompson of Brampton, Ont., had a game-high 10 rebounds.
A healthy DeRozan would undoubtedly have made a big difference through the first three quarters for a Raptors team that trailed the Cavs for most of the night, and were down 77-68 going into the fourth.
But Lowry, who was spectacular all night in shooting 15-for-20 and doling out nine assists, led a fourth-quarter comeback seemingly by sheer will, and when he got fouled on a bucket right in front of the Cavs bench with 3:59 to play, he pumped a fist and hollered in Cleveland’s direction. The Air Canada Centre crowd went nuts, and Lowry’s ensuing free throw pulled the Raptors to within five points.
A floating jumper from Ross gave the Raptors a one-point lead with 2:26 to play, to the delight of the noisy capacity crowd of 19,800 that included Buffalo Bills legend Thurman Thomas, who rifled autographed footballs to fans during a timeout.
A Lowry basket tied the game with 52 seconds left, then JR Smith missed on a three-point shot, and Lowry fired the 23-footer to seal the victory in what many had touted as a conference final preview.
Lowry said his last game-winner came while playing for Villanova.
"YouTube it. It’s nice. I got hops," he said, with a chuckle.
James had high praise for Lowry’s game, saying "He just had a hell of a game. That’s what all-stars do."
Coach Dwane Casey said, with both DeRozan and Cory Joseph ill, he was proud of how his team "fought through it."
"(Lowry) knew that it was on his back. Nobody was having a great game," Casey said. "We were trying to find matchups defensively, somebody to guard LeBron, who is a handful… It put us in situations where one consistent was Kyle on both ends of the floor. He did an excellent job of leading the team and finishing the game out."
The Raptors beat the Cavs 103-99 on Nov. 25 in Toronto, but then were blown out 122-100 on Jan. 4 in Cleveland.
Toronto looked completely out of sync in a first quarter, allowing the Cavs to shoot 57 per cent in the frame. The Raptors trailed 31-21 going into the second.
With James on the bench, the Raptors capitalized and took their first lead on a Biyombo layup five minutes before halftime. The Cavs took a 49-45 lead into the break.
Cleveland stretched its lead to a game-high 14 points late in the third.
NOTES: The Raptors’ previous record for home wins was nine in 1999. They tied that Wednesday versus Minnesota… The Raptors play the Pistons in Detroit on Sunday, then return home for seven in a row… Morris Peterson (542), Jose Calderon (525), and Chris Bosh (509) are the only other players to have played 500-plus games for Toronto.