Jonas Valanciunas was looking for a distraction. On Wednesday night, for roughly two and a half hours, the Philadelphia 76ers fit the bill.
Playing in his first game since being charged with a DUI early Monday morning, Valanciunas was fantastic about the 76ers. Scoring a career-high 26 points to go with 12 rebounds, he shot 10-for-14 from the floor and 6-for-8 from the free throw line as Toronto defeated Philadelphia 125-114.
“I don’t know if it had anything to do with his off-court mishaps or not but I liked his focus, I liked his intensity, he was engaged,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “No ill effects whatsoever and hopefully we can get it all settled.”
Immediately after the victory, Valanciunas wanted to speak with the media. It was the first time he had spoken since the news has been reported. Rather than talking about his play, he chose to publicly thank fans for their support.
“It’s been a rough couple of days, but I find power, find my energy to come out [and] fight,” Valanciunas said. “I felt really good fan support, thank you to them. That felt great because everybody supported me. I just say sorry and I’m learning, you know… to be better.”
The Raptors locker room wasn’t at all surprised at Valanciunas’ big night.
“He was going to play like trash or play amazing,” Kyle Lowry said. “He played amazing. That’s what we expected.”
DeMar DeRozan was extremely direct in voicing support of his sophomore teammate. When asked his thoughts on the performance Valanciunas put in against the Sixers, he responded with a lighthearted request: “I hope everybody leaves him alone.”
Against the 17-61 Sixers, Valanciunas looked unstoppable. The Raptors went to him early and often and he responded.
“He wants the ball,” Lowry said. “Tonight he was literally yelling at me to give him the ball. And I’ve got to do nothing but give him the ball, because he’s our big fella.”
By halftime, Valanciunas had 17 points and seven rebounds, while making six of his seven field goal attempts. He topped his previous career-high of 24 before the third quarter had finished.
“He came out big,” DeRozan said. “That shows he doesn’t let anything else affect him. Everything that’s going on or the situation that happened, he’s just going out there playing. He did what he did, it’s over with. He apologized to us and he understands what’s at stake. He understands we need him.”
Toronto needs Valanciunas, but it also needs the rest of its roster healthy and ready to go for the postseason as well. Amir Johnson was inactive on Wednesday night to give his sprained ankle another night off. Lowry returned after a three-game absence because of a bruised knee. He showed little signs of rust, scoring 10 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter as the Raptors finally shook off a scrappy Sixers squad that wanted to hang around.
The victory moves the Raptors to 46 wins on the season. They can tie the franchise wins record with a victory on Friday night against the New York Knicks. A victory would also clinch the Atlantic Division title for the second time in franchise history.
Playing for things that matter and crossing goals off the April to-do list is new territory for this Raptors team. The question coming into Wednesday’s game was whether Valanciunas would be a distraction to his team in the wake of a rare off-court issue this team has had to deal with. He quickly answered that question by putting in the best night of his NBA career. While his performance helped his team to victory, being able to be there for his teammates held extra meaning for Valanciunas.
“This is our sanctuary,” Lowry said. “Basketball, where we get a chance to be away from everything. Basketball is our space, our secret spot. That’s where guys get to release a lot of energy and intensity.”