Kyle Lowry could have withdrawn into a shell when his name began being tossed about in trade rumours earlier this month.
Instead, the Toronto Raptors point guard did the exact opposite.
Lowry poured in a season-high 32 points, plus had 11 assists and eight rebounds, to lead the Raptors to a decisive 115-100 victory over the New York Knicks on Saturday — his latest strong game, prompting coach Dwane Casey to say Lowry is playing the best basketball of his career.
"He is playing with such force and confidence," Casey said. "He's been playing the game the right way and he's been playing lights out."
Terrence Ross had seven three-pointers as part of a 23-point performance for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors (13-15), who've won seven of their last 10 games.
DeMar DeRozan finished with 20 points, while Raptors newcomer Greivis Vasquez added 11, and Jonas Valanciunas had 10 boards to go with nine points.
But it was Lowry who was the recipient of most of Casey's post-game praise, mostly for the leadership he's showing. At one point during the fourth quarter Saturday, Lowry jumped in to separate Valanciunas and Knicks big man Tyson Chandler.
"Just in the locker-room, in practice, on the court, his encouragement to the young players, how you say things to young players, he's been great at that," Casey said. "With all the trade rumours, and all the bullcrap that's going around, he's been positive and upbeat, and a leader.
"He could have. . . isolated himself from everybody else, but he dove in and has been positive about it. I'm happy for him, and proud of him for handling himself that way."
Lowry shrugged off Casey's comments.
Not worried about trade rumours
"What am I going to do? It's a business. Am I going to be mad?" Lowry said. "It is what it is, I'm not really worried about it, I've said it 50 million times and I'm going to say it 50 more, until something happens, I'm a Raptor and I'm going to play for the Raptors and play hard for the Raptors."
Toronto's victory over the beleaguered Knicks was the second in as many nights, coming a day after they rallied from a 12-point third-quarter deficit to win 95-83 in New York.
The Raptors never trailed by more than two points Saturday, and took the lead for good late in the first quarter, pulling away in the second with crisp ball movement, strong team play, and the hot hand of Ross before taking an 85-71 lead into the fourth.
Vasquez, acquired in the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento, drained three consecutive three-pointers in the third for a 17-point Toronto lead. But the Knicks put up some resistance down the stretch, pulling to within six points on a basket by Tyson Chandler with 3:50 left to play.
Lowry, who was just two rebounds shy of a triple-double on the night, responded with a pair of free throws and a three-pointer to put Toronto up by 11 and out of danger to the relief of a sellout Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,800.
Amare Soudemire had 23 points to top the Knicks (9-21), who were missing Carmelo Anthony (sprained left ankle) and Metta World Peace (sore left knee). Chandler added 16, while former Raptor Andrea Bargnani had 12 points in 17 minutes.
"Either way, whether it's by 20 or by one, it's still a loss," said the Knicks' JR Smith. "Every loss is difficult. We try to learn from it as much as you can but it just keeps happening."
The Raptors were back in Toronto after going 3-1 on the road — a stretch that included victories over Oklahoma City and Dallas.
Their confidence right now is soaring.
"We're not beating just any teams, we're going into other places and beating good teams, that's what it's all about, and that's what we've got to keep doing if we want to be a playoff team," DeRozan said.
The victory in Dallas in particular, DeRozan said "just showed you we could play with anyone."
The Raptors shot 45 per cent on the night, while allowing the Knicks to shoot 49 per cent. They outrebounded their visitors 45-37.
Ross, who's been making the most of his increased playing time since Gay was traded, shot 7-for-11 from three-point range, and had a massive dunk in the second quarter that brought the crowd to its feet.
DeRozan said his advice to Ross was: "You jump higher than anybody on the court. You're a great shooter. You can do so much. Just use it."
Bargnani, meanwhile, was booed mercilessly during introductions in his first regular-season game in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to New York last summer. Some fans chanted "Primo!" — a reference to his Toronto pasta commercials.
The seven-foot Italian was drafted No. 1 overall in 2006, and played his first seven NBA seasons in Toronto, but fans had little love left for Bargnani by the time he departed.
Before the game, Bargnani made light of the boos he knew he'd surely face.
"It's not the first time I got booed. It's not the last time. I've been playing in Europe since I was 14. It's not just about the boos. It's about life. a You hear them," he said. "But like I say, it's not the first time, it's not the last time."
Lowry raced out to a strong start, with nine points and four assists in a first quarter that saw the lead change hands nine times. The Raptors took a 26-22 lead into the second.
Toronto turned it up a notch in the second, and a driving layup by Lowry with just under a minute to go before the break put the Raptors up by 14 points. The Raptors took a 57-44 lead into the dressing room at halftime.
Ross drained three buckets from beyond the arc in the third, his third one with 4:14 left putting the home team up by 20 points.