TORONTO - It was a night he won't soon forget, whether he's willing to admit it or not.
"(The) most important (thing) is the victory," Jonas Valanciunas humbly stated after scoring a career-high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds, helping his team rally back from a 15-point deficit to top the Washington Wizards (28-47) 88-78 at the Air Canada Centre Wednesday evening.
The Raptors (28-47) trailed by 11 at the half following an abysmal second quarter in which they shot 28 per cent. However, they responded coming out of the locker room, outscoring the visiting Wizards 29-12 in the third frame thanks in large part to the contributions of DeMar DeRozan -- who had a team-high 25 points in the game -- as well as their rookie centre.
"That's just him playing hard and being aggressive," DeRozan said of Valanciunas, who shot an impressive 16-for-18 from the free-throw line during his career outing. "As a rookie when you get 20 points that's definitely big, especially when it's a double-double as well so that's going to go a long way."
The 20-year-old from Lithuania has recorded a double-double in three of his last four games, scoring in double figures in 13 of 14.
"The physicality of the game doesn't bother him anymore," coach Dwane Casey said of his rookie centre. "Where before he would kind of disappear a little bit, now JV is huge at the end of games. You (can) go to him, he can make free throws, he can pass the basketball (but) most of all he can defend without fouling."
Toronto snapped a two-game losing streak, splitting the season series with the Wizards for the third consecutive year while eliminating them from playoff contention.
Fast Breaking Points
- Youth is Served, Consume at Your Own Discretion
As the schedule turns to April, with the Raptors officially eliminated from postseason contention following Monday's loss to Detroit, Casey has gone all in on the youth movement (almost). On Wednesday we got a glimpse of the full rookie spectrum; the good (Valanciunas), the bad (Terrence Ross) and the in between (Quincy Acy).
Valanciunas' career night can hardly be considered a surprise, as he continues to impress with the increased playing time he's been given (or as Casey would say, he's earned).
"He's getting the respect of the league (and) the respect of the officials," Casey pointed out after the game. "He's just not a big blob out there that is taking up space, this kid can play, so he's getting the respect of the officials. They kind of know his game now, they're getting to know him as a player, know what he can do and he's just not out there hacking. He knows how to play, he's got good hands and he's a talented young man."
Prior to Wednesday's contest Valanciunas had never attempted more than 10 free throws in a game. The rookie, like the rest of the team, has had his ups and downs with the league's officials throughout the season but has always kept his composure. Reputations are easily tarnished in this league but they're not as easily built. Valanciunas is well on his way to establishing himself as the type of work-horse player that will play through a bad or missed call and continue to invite contact in the paint. This could go a long way for a team that has struggled to get to the line with consistency, attempting 10 total free throws in Monday's loss (they were 27-36 as a team on Wednesday).
"It's tough period, for all of us in here," said DeRozan, asked about earning respect from the officials. "When the refs see you out there playing hard every time down, not giving up down there with the bigs, it becomes obvious and I think the refs start to see that."
As Casey has pointed out continuously, the youth movement does have its obvious drawbacks, which became apparent during a second-quarter drought with all three rookies on the floor at the same time. The Raptors went scoreless for over five minutes (without a field goal for nearly six) before the half-time bell rang as Valanciunas, Ross and Acy were deployed with Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry. The three first-year players had nowhere to hide as their miscues were magnified and execution stalled on both ends. "We're rookies," Acy said, "and it kind of shows sometimes so I think the main thing for us is to just help each other out."
In a career-high 20 minutes, Acy brought his usual energy and toughness to the table and even knocked down a couple 20-foot jumpers. Defensively, he was occasionally caught out of position and his five fouls (plus one technical) are certainly not ideal but overall it was a promising outing for the recently recalled forward.
Ross got off to a nice start with a strong drive to the basket on his first possession, his first and only field goal in the last three outings. However, he quickly reverted back to the timid, often invisible player that was held scoreless in his previous two games. "I want him to get out and get going and give him minutes," Casey said of Ross, who played just eight minutes Wednesday. "But I'm not going to give it away, I want him to earn it."
Casey has held firm in his stance that playing time, even at this juncture of the season, must be earned with hard and smart play.
"Whoever goes in the game, no matter who it is, is going to still have to earn it," he continued. "There's not going to be time given [away]. I'm going with the guys who are going to give us energy [and] hard play. That's what we're going to be about. It's simple. Make your minutes count, don't count your minutes."
- DeRozan's Night
After a series of subpar performances to conclude the month of March, DeRozan bounced back in a big way on a night when the team needed his offensive production. With Gay limited by a sore ankle he turned in the game (six points on 2-of-8 shooting in 26 minutes), DeRozan stepped up and sparked the Raptors during their third-quarter run.
"It's embarrassing when a team gets up on you or starts hitting shots on you on your home floor," DeRozan said of the team's first-half struggles. "You just have to step it up and play upset."
He did just that, shooting 11-of-21 on the night, 7-of-12 in the second half.
The Stat: It was just the third game in which DeRozan has exceeded 20 points since Mar. 1 after scoring 20 or more in seven contests during the month of February.
- Lowry the Facilitator
Although Lowry continues to struggle with his shot (5-for-22 from long range over the last six games), he's been making up for it by embracing and excelling in the role of facilitator with this group. With a season-high 13 assists in Wednesday's contest, the point guard has registered 10 or more dimes in four of the last seven games. During that stretch he's accumulated 62 assists to only 19 turnovers.
"This was one of his better floor games," Casey said of Lowry, who has been a big part of the team's improved ball movement over the last five games. "He did a good job of guarding [John] Wall, keeping him out of the paint."
Although Wall, who has been playing the best basketball of his career, shot a perfect 10-for-10 from the stripe he was held to 20 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Credit Lowry and the rest of Toronto's defence, specifically in the second half, for forcing Wall out of his comfort zone.
Lowry is at his best when he's playing aggressively and still needs to find a balance between making plays for himself and for his teammates.
The Stat: Lowry has recorded seven or more assists in each of the last five games, matching a career high he set last season.
Notables and Quotables
Landry Fields returned and played 17 minutes off the bench after missing Monday's game, undergoing follow-up testing on his surgically repaired right elbow. The results of those tests revealed that his elbow is healing at an expected rate. He scored three points and grabbed three rebounds. ... The Raptors tied a season-low with one three-pointer on a season-low attempts from beyond the arch. ... Washington was without rookie guard Bradley Beal, who the team announced will miss the remainder of the season with a stress injury in his right fibula.
"From the start I was this new guy in the NBA. I didn't know a lot about it and that's the big learning process in every game. I was not talking to [the officials], like not complaining about calls, maybe that's helping."
"He works so hard and it's good that it's paying off for him. He's going to have a long career."
-- Acy on Valanciunas
"There's always a lot to play for anytime I step on the court. I love this game so I'm going to play hard no matter what the situation is."
"It's just frustrating when we let teams jump out on us like that and we've got to fight our way back. We know we can play like we did in the second half for a full 48 minutes. We've just got it to do it, it's just mental."
-- DeRozan on falling behind in the first half
The Raptors will face their final Western Conference opponent on Friday when they visit the Minnesota Timberwolves (28-46) before traveling to Milwaukee for the second game of a back-to-back on Saturday against the Bucks (36-38).