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The Toronto Raptors (25-39) had some work to do on Sunday to get over the hangover that was Friday night's OT loss to the Lakers. On top of the emotional turmoil of a narrow, dramatic, gut-punch loss, the Staples Center visit also cost them Rudy Gay (back spasms, again) and Andrea Bargnani (right elbow).
The lingering effects of the Lakers' loss showed through in the early goings against Cleveland on Sunday evening. The Cavs led by as many as 17 points in the first half, shooting over 50% early on while Toronto couldn't seem to buy a bucket (35% in the first half). However, an enduring commitment to getting out on the break (11-3 in fast break points) and remaining active on the offensive glass (13-5 in second chance points), coupled with an untimely (timely?) shoulder injury to Kyrie Irving helped the Raps rally to a 100-96 victory, thereby evening the season series at 2-2.
Toronto's win was just the second in 14 games in which they shot under 40%. Absent of any real strong shooting performances (no Raptor starter made half of their shots), the home side was buoyed by Amir Johnson's 17-point, 16-rebound effort and a second half defensive emphasis that pulled the Cavs' shooting mark down to 41% for the game.
After clawing their way back (and even taking what was as much as an eight-point lead), the Raptors entered the game's final minute trailing by one point. It was then that Kyle Lowry took charge, scoring the club's next four points to put them up with 14 seconds to go. A rare decision by the Raps to foul in the dying seconds produced a 1-2 free throw effort from Dion Waiters and allowed DeMar DeRozan to step to the line on the other end, where he put the game out of reach and gave the fans their pizza-clinching 100 points.
If Friday night in L.A. offered Dwane Casey at his most perplexing, Sunday night was him at his most inspired. There was the 180 on his oft-lamented use of the rookies, with both Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross getting meaningful starting roles and playing, respectively, 32 and 28 minutes, combining for 25 points and 12 rebounds. Then there was the emergence out of the half, with Toronto jumping out to a game-changing 33-19 edge in the third quarter. Finally, there was a pair of key decisions in the final minute, the aforementioned decision to foul and an effective decision to forego an expected timeout in the game's final 30 seconds, catching Cleveland off-guard and securing an easy lay-up opportunity for Lowry.
Reflecting on Amir's Year
Not much else to say about Johnson's 17-16 showing (oh, three blocks!), so let's talk about the Raptors power forward's season on the whole. I think it was Zach Lowe who tweeted about Amir being among the league's most improved players last month (I can't seem to find the tweet), highlighting his career-highs in points (10.1) and rebounds (7.3) while becoming a key contributor on both ends of the court. No, he won't win Most Improved Player, but he will enter the 2013-14 season as one of the team's trusted, reliable assets (while on not as bad a contract as it once appeared).
Who to Run the Offence Through
Does it really seem that long ago that Gay was not a Raptor? Without him or Bargnani around to run the offence through, no one seemed up to the task (not that Bargnani has been either, but I digress). One game after looking so assertive and inspired against the Lakers, DeRozan was nowhere to be found for much of the night, making just three of his 13 shots while not exactly demanding the ball. Meanwhile, Ross was quiet before coming alive in the second half and Lowry took some time to get his legs going (most of his 15-9-5 stat line came after halftime). It seemed that only Johnson and a few standout moments from Valanciunas tried to negate what was an extremely flat first half.
- Injuries seemed to be the order of the day, from Gay to Bargnani to Irving to this poor, unsuspecting towel guy.
- Courtside was a busy place on Sunday night. Not only was Drake in the house, but so was Heisman winner Johnny "Johnny Football" Manziell. Two questions: 1) why was Manziell in Toronto? and 2) who has the bigger 'Q' rating among the two right now?
The club will get results on Bargnani's injury and check up on Gay's back before heading out to visit the Celts on Wednesday night (7:30pm, RSN).
Prediction: Celtics 106, Raps 86 (42-16 this season)