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Lewenberg: Undermanned Raptors rally back in 'character win'

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Josh Lewenberg
3/11/2013 1:08:46 AM
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Missing two of their top scorers and returning home following a disappointing road trip, the Raptors (25-39) were not lacking obstacles heading into Sunday's contest.

"We had every excuse in the world," Raptors coach Dwane Casey admitted after his team rallied back from a 17-point deficit to top the Cleveland Cavaliers (21-42) at the Air Canada Centre. "Guys (were) groggy coming in, a time change, we had every (reason) to mail it in this game but I told them at halftime that we can't (use) that as an excuse and everybody stepped up."

The Raptors, who dug themselves an early hole, were without leading scorer Rudy Gay -- resting a lingering back ailment -- and Andrea Bargnani, sidelined with a strained elbow.

"It was definitely an energy game," said Amir Johnson, who led the charge with his team-leading 12th double-double, scoring 17 to go along with a career-high matching 16 rebounds.

"We came out sluggish in the first and second quarters," he continued. "We picked it up later in the second and carried it on throughout the rest of the game."

Toronto engineered a 27-13 run in the third quarter -- coinciding with a left shoulder injury that took Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving out of the game -- to take control going into what turned out to be a back-and-forth final period.

Cleveland took a one-point lead into the final minute before Kyle Lowry answered scoring four straight, including a go-ahead turnaround jumper with 14 seconds remaining.

Six Raptors scored in double figures paced by reserve Alan Anderson, who recorded 15 of his 18 points in the second half. Lowry added 15 to go along with nine boards, DeMar DeRozan scored 13 while rookies Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas chipped in with 14 and 11 respectively.

Fast Breaking Points

- A little muscle goes a long way

The Raptors were simply out-muscled and out-hustled throughout a flat start to the game -- their sub-par offence also did them no favours. Brampton-native Tristan Thompson did his part with six of his 10 rebounds in the first quarter and by the end of the period the Cavs had accumulated an advantage of five on the boards and six points in the paint. Thompson and centre Tyler Zeller did most of the early damage for the Cavs, who closed out the opening frame on a 21-11 run and scored eight of the first 10 points in the second.

That's where Johnson took matters into his own hands, as he has done time after time this season. The Raptors' spark plug had eight points and half his 16 boards in the second quarter, sending a wake-up call to the rest of his under-performing squad going into what must have been a lively halftime discussion, trailing by nine.

"He's just an old vet," Casey said of the 25-year-old Johnson in his seventh season out of high school. "He learned a lot in Detroit. He's one of the old guys I would say but a young guy at the same time. Again, he's a warrior, I've said it all year."

Johnson set the tone with his energy and the team responded, out-rebounding the Cavaliers by seven and besting them by 12 in the paint in the final three quarters.

The Stat: The Raptors have recorded 40 or more points in the paint in five consecutive contests despite ranking 27th in that category.

- Youth is (finally) served

It only took a couple key injuries, an embarrassing veteran-led collapse in Los Angeles and a realization that this team is (was) 15-games under .500 with (now) 18 games remaining for Casey to finally turn to his prized duo of first-year players. The Raptors' coach was heavily criticized for his use (or lack thereof) of Valanciunas (who didn't play in the fourth or overtime) and Ross (who didn't play at all) in Friday's loss to the Lakers. Prior to Sunday's game he admitted that finding both players more playing time was at the top of his end-of-season to-do list, but wasn't something he felt was fair against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.

My feeling on that rationale is simply, how else are they going to develop if they're not given the chance to get their feet wet against elite competition? Especially at the tail end of an otherwise lost season? Although the level of competition was far from elite Sunday, both rookies took significant steps in the right direction, rewarding their coach for the added playing time.

"JV's heart is in the right place, he's working and getting better," Casey said of Valanciunas, who flashed some impressive post moves specifically in the third quarter where he scored nine points and grabbed four boards. "Next year that's going to be something he can go to and have plays run for him."

Ross -- who went from a DNP-CD in Los Angeles to his first NBA start in place of the injured Gay -- was settling for long jumpers in the first half, a trend that has plagued him through sporadic usage over the last month. Coming out of the break something clicked and the rookie finally started to utilize his high-end athleticism to get to the rim. Not surprisingly that seemed to re-ignite his confidence and ultimately his jumper as he knocked down 2-of-3 three-point attempts in the second half.

The Stat: Ross and Valanciunas combined for 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting the third quarter. It was the sixth time this season where both rookies played over 20 minutes in the same game and first since Dec. 12 in Brooklyn.

- The Kyrie Factor

Isn't it a convenient coincidence when the turning point overlaps with a game-ending injury to the opposition's most productive player? We saw it in Phoenix when Marcin Gortat's early exit sparked a Raptors run that ultimately carried them to an easy victory. Although nothing about this win was easy for Toronto, Irving's injury -- with two minutes remaining in the third quarter -- was clearly a crucial point in the game.

The Raptors were already in the middle of what turned into a 27-13 run when Irving collided with Valanciunas, shot and split two-one handed free throws, then headed immediately to the Cavaliers locker room not to be heard from again. With the momentum already shifting towards the home team, the loss of their All-Star point guard was one that hurt the Cavs going into a closely contested fourth quarter in which Irving's services were sorely missed.

The Stat: Irving leads the NBA in scoring with his team up or down by five points or less in the final minute of the game. Kobe Bryant is second, Kevin Durant is third.

- The Rudy Dilemma

Prior to the game Casey indicated there was a possibility that Gay could be rested in the future if his back pain persisted. "That's been discussed and talked about and it could happen," he said. Little did we know, he was referring to the very near future as the Raptors leading scorer was a late scratch from the lineup on Sunday.

Gay has been slowed by the injury since his back started to act up on him in the loss to Washington a couple weeks ago. Clearly he was not himself in what turned into a disastrous second half in L.A. Friday. (Note: the hard fall he took early in the third probably didn't help considering he's also battled recent shoulder and ankle injuries). Even a fully healthy version of Gay won't soon be cast as the model of efficiency but a 7-for-26 performance -- 0-for-8 in the fourth quarter and overtime -- is uncharacteristically terrible, even for him.

My question, if he wasn't close to full health in L.A. -- as we can only assume he wasn't based on the decision to rest him two days later -- why was he continuously thrust into the spotlight with the game on the line? Of course the player himself is largely at fault for not taking a necessary step back and the coaching staff deserves their share of the blame for not recognizing that and acting accordingly.

The preference, for the Raptors organization, is to have Gay in the lineup as the season comes to an end if for no other reason than to build chemistry with this unit he'll be a crucial part of next year. However, without much else on the line it makes more sense to be cautious and rest him if he's unable to perform at the high level he expects from himself. He's far too important to this team's future, as early as next October, to risk further injury. Back injuries tend to linger.

Notables and Quotables

After dropping its last two meeting with the Cavaliers, the Raptors split the season series at two games apiece. ... Bargnani, who re-injured his right elbow in the first quarter of Friday's loss, is scheduled to undergo further tests on Monday. He missed 26 games earlier this season with a torn ligament in the same elbow.

"I know where we're at, I know where were going [and] I know how to get there but again it takes these guys committed like they were [in] the second half."
-- Casey

"[We] finally got it right. We work on it, we talk about, we drill it. They're human beings, we're [all] human beings, everyone's [a] human being. You'd love to have a perfect situation but again, it's a process."
-- Casey on fouling the Cavaliers, up three on the final possession after they failed to execute the same play at the end of regulation in Los Angeles

"We had messed that up a couple times. In the timeout [Coach] was stressing it so I think we all heard him this time."
-- Raptors forward Landry Fields on committing that foul on the last possession

"The one thing your not going to beat Amir Johnson on is effort and fight. Tonight it was contagious."
-- Casey

"Everything is so fast for rookies and I don't care who you are, what level of rookie you are, it is a learning experience. I've been in this for a long time and I've seen rookies come through and that's what they have to learn; the speed of the game. As a coach it's my job to make sure they're growing the right way, coached the right way and brought along the right way because if you don't you get a diluted product."
-- Casey

Up Next

The Raptors travel to Boston to take on the Celtics at 7:30pm ET on Wednesday.

Amir Johnson (Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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