Amir Johnson has been the Toronto Raptors iron man for playing through injuries. An unassuming steadying force at both ends of the court and Head Coach Dwane Casey’s go to big man, when it looked like longest tenured Raptor might be going down with a hyper extended knee near the end of the win over the Atlanta Hawks, it caught everyone’s attention.
“When (Johnson) grabbed his knee, I kind of cussed at him to make sure he was alright,” DeMar DeRozan said.
“He had my heart in my throat a little bit,” Casey said.
Johnson is known for playing when hurt in Toronto and he’s earned a reputation for motivating his teammates by giving more than it appears he should have to give. Referring to Johnson as the team’s ‘heart and soul’ isn’t going too far.
“(Johnson) is our heart and soul, so when that happened it kind of scared us a little bit,” Kyle Lowry said. “He gives his all and he makes everyone else give their all too.”
“I’ve seen Amir get hit by a Mack truck and get back up,” DeRozan said. “I always hate to see him go down, but one thing about him, Amir will play through any and everything, but he kind of scared me tonight.”
Of course Johnson just grimaced in pain, hobbled to the bench for the timeout and went straight back out on the court leaving just about everyone wondering what it would take to get Johnson to voluntarily come out at the end of a game.
The game against Atlanta wasn’t something to be saved as an example of how to play basketball however. The Raptors stunk in the first half. Within 4 minutes Casey subbed in Tyler Hansbrough for Jonas Valanciunas and less than a minute later he put in Greivis Vasquez for Kyle Lowry. This team just wasn’t ready to play a 1 pm start. Even Nando De Colo got in before the end of the first quarter. The substitutions helped a bit, but the Raptors as a group was a lifeless, sloppy turnover machine that was inexplicitedly only down 49-42 at the half. Vasquez led the Raptors in scoring with 10 points because of 3 driving layups in a row to start the second quarter or the score in this game would have been as ugly as the play. DeMarre Carroll out-hustled the Raptors on his way to 15 first half points.
Toronto’s players got an earful at half-time.
“I am still sleeping at 1 o’clock,” Lowry said. “But we came through today. Casey came in and he yelled at us a bit for not being prepared to play at 1 o’clock.”
“(1 o’clock games) used to be easy,” DeRozan said. “They are kind of tough, but we got to do it, just figure out a better routine for us. He came in yelling (at half-time) and once Casey is yelling, you do your job or you are going to be hearing him yelling after the game. We were playing terrible in that first half.”
Apparently, the loud reminder to be prepared worked – eventually. The Raptors did slow the Hawks offense down in the third quarter, but Atlanta was up 71-60 heading into the fourth quarter and Toronto still hadn’t found any offensive rhythm. It didn’t take long for one of the NBA’s best fourth quarter teams to turn it on in crunch time though.
“We are just resilient to be honest,” DeRozan said. “We just understand how important the game is coming down to the fourth quarter everything matters. Our attention to detail steps up, we understand we have to pull out a win somehow someway.
“The hunger to win just kicks in and when it comes down to me and (Lowry), (we) try to pull our team to victory.”
Toronto outscored Atlanta 36-15 in the fourth quarter, starting with a 13-3 run to close to within a point and closing on a 15-2 run to complete the improbable double-digit comeback victory.
Lowry going 5-5 for 13 points in the final quarter while DeRozan piled in 10 points on 3-6 from the field as the Raptors pulled away 96-86 at the end. The Hawks, who had been shooting 50 percent from the field through 3 quarters, suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket shooting 6-22 over the final 12 minutes.
Casey must have yelled himself out at half-time as he was pretty calm after a game in which his players only really showed up for the final quarter.
Lowry led all scorers with 25 points and DeRozan had 21 points. Carroll and Paul Millsap had 17 points each for the Hawks.
If the 39-30 Raptors want a shot a tying or bettering the franchise record for wins (47), it all starts this week with 13 games left. Toronto plays in Cleveland on Tuesday, at Boston on Wednesday, versus Boston Friday and at Orlando on Sunday.
If Coach Casey can lead the Raptors to 3 more road wins, he will set a franchise record (beating 20 road wins in 2000-2001). Toronto has never finished a season with a winning record on the road. Some regular season records are worth going after.
The Hawks play Phoenix on Monday and face a tough week with the Knicks only 2.5 games behind them in ninth place.
No Salary Cap Space For You Toronto Raptors
As we watch the Toronto Raptors going down the stretch fighting for third place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with a chance to set a franchise record for wins, the early season Tank Nation crowd are still muttering, ‘there’s no cap space, we won’t get Wiggins, too many free agents, will Kyle Lowry and company stay in Toronto?’ The short answer to all of that is, if President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri wants to keep his team together, there is no salary cap space for the summer of 2014.