Shelvin Mack;  Jeff Teague; Kyle Lowry

Raptors trying to rest Kyle Lowry down the stretch

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Kyle Lowry, after averaging 36.7 minutes per game in his first 68 games this season, played just 27 minutes in a win over the Hawks on Sunday. He’d played less only in a pair of blowout wins over the Jazz.

Cause for concern for the Raptors? Barely. It’s much more indicative of Toronto’s positive season.

Eric Koreen of the National Post:

Raptors fans can expect the star point guard, the team’s most important player, to continue to come out at unexpected times. He has a series of ailments, including a groin issue, that require a lighter workload for the moment.

“We want to win,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “That’s the number one thing. But you’ve got to have healthy players. It’s a catch-22. You play DeMar [DeRozan] and Kyle for 38, 40, 42 minutes, and sooner or later it’s going to tell on them. It’s not a major revelation that we need to watch [their minutes], but at the same time, win. Winning trumps a lot.”

Resting players is always easier said than done for competitive coaches like Casey. He mostly followed his Sunday substitution pattern with Lowry in the first half against the Cavaliers yesterday, erring a bit toward playing the point guard more. But with the Raptors down 14 at halftime and trying come back – they fell just short in a 102-100 loss – Lowry played 18 second-half minutes.

DeRozan, who ranks third in the NBA with 38.4 minutes per game, hasn’t yet seen his playing time decrease.

The 39-31 Raptors are fourth in the Eastern Conference, 1.5 games ahead of the fifth-place Nets. In terms of team quality, very little separates the East’s 3-6 teams – the Bulls, Raptors, Nets and Wizards. But the top two teams in that group will get homecourt advantage in the first round, a significant factor.

Until Toronto has a little more margin over fifth place or Lowry’s injuries become more significant, his playing time will likely drop only so much.

Report: Khris Middleton could return to Bucks before All-Star break

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 16:  Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts during their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena on January 16, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The Bucks projected Khris Middleton to miss about 70 games when he tore his hamstring before the season. That extended absence often leads players just to shut down for the year, but Middleton vowed to return in time for the playoffs.

He might get back far sooner than that.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Sources told ESPN.com the Bucks think Middleton, who suffered a hamstring tear just days before the season began, “has a chance” to return to the lineup during a three-game homestand next month before the All-Star ‎break.

Whether Middleton ultimately makes his season debut before or after the All-Star Game, he is expected to be kept on a minutes restriction as he eases way his back from the injury, sources said.

The Bucks have started Tony Snell, who has held his own as an outside shooter. But Middleton will upgrade Milwaukee on Snell’s biggest strength and provide massive defensive improvement. After a strong start, the Bucks have really struggled lately on that end.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has led Milwaukee to a 20-21 record, though the team is better than its won-loss mark indicates. The Bucks will be even better with Middleton, who will rival Jabari Parker as their second-best player and fit seamlessly.

Isaiah Thomas nutmegs Knicks center Marshall Plumlee (video)

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Isaiah Thomas usually saves his best play for the fourth quarter, but the Celtics guard showed out early with this pass between Marshall Plumlee‘s legs to get Kelly Olynyk a layup.

Thomas uncharacteristically just didn’t have enough late. Though he scored 39 points, he shot just 2-for-9 in the final period, as the Knicks pulled away for a 117-106 win.

Kevin Durant misses dunk so hard, ball flies past halfcourt (video)

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Kevin Durant played great in the Warriors’ win over the Thunder last night, but – perhaps fueled by excess emotion – he missed this incredibly emphatic dunk attempt.

Later, Russell Westbrook showed his former teammate how to do it (sparking their apparent conversation):

James Harden outduels Giannis Antetokounmpo as they produce fantastic highlight video

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James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo met in a battle of two of the NBA’s best point guards. (Still weird to say.) The final lines:

  • Harden: 38 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 blocks
  • Antetokounmpo: 32 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks

The winner? Harden and the Rockets, who topped the Bucks, 111-92.

But the real winner? Anyone who gets to watch this highlight video. It just gets better as it goes.