Kyrie Ivring’s post-game media availability was certainly different than his last trip to Toronto.
While Irving got to bask in the glow of a game-winner at the Air Canada Centre at the end of January, on Sunday evening he spent the fourth quarter in the locker room. Getting tests for a left shoulder contusion, Irving was unable to save the Cleveland Cavaliers as they gave up a nine-point, halftime lead and fell to the Toronto Raptors, 100-96.
During Dwane Casey’s pre-game media availability, the Raptors coach stressed that the team’s final 18 games of the season would be about evaluating what they have. Finding minutes for younger players like Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas would be a priority.
Minutes before tip-off, the team announced that Rudy Gay would miss the game with back stiffness and that rookie Terrence Ross would make the first start of his career.
While it wasn’t said explicitly during Casey’s chat with the media, it was implied was that the team’s focus has moved to development instead of sitting youth in attempts to catch the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Casey has talked many times about the difficult balance between developing young players and trying to win. While he’s still coaching to win, he also recognizes that he has to allow his younger players the opportunity to show what they can do and to get used to being on the floor in high-pressure situations.
After his team trailed throughout the first half against the Cavaliers, he challenged them at halftime.
Springing back from the halftime deficit, the Raptors outscored Cleveland 33-19 in the third. While the fourth quarter was a close one, the Raptors took advantage of Irving being in the locker room. Cavs rookie Dion Waiters did his best Irving impersonation, scoring 13 points in the final quarter, but the team game of the Raptors won out.
Following a spin and fade-away shot from Kyle Lowry paired with tough defence against Waiters by Landry Fields, DeMar DeRozan went to the line with his team ahead by three and 3.4 on the clock.
As the crowd rooted wildly -- both for the free throws to ice the game and for the 100 points needed for free pizza -- DeRozan calmly sank both free throws and the Raptors walked off the court with a win.
Johnson always a warrior
Ross played nearly 29 minutes on Sunday. For the first time in a long while, he looked confident while on the floor. Finishing with 14 points, the rookie also added five rebounds, three assists and a steal. Most importantly, he took open shots, attacked the rim and played his game rather than playing in fear of being benched.
Valanciunas had a strong game against the Cavs’ big men. He finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. Still, nobody’s performance topped Amir Johnson.
Through the ups and downs of this season (and the season before, and the season before that one, too), Johnson has been the one constant for the Raptors. Whether on the bench or in the starting lineup, Johnson has given his all and left everything on the floor. Against the Cavaliers on Sunday, he scored 17 points and pulled down 16 rebounds while also serving up two assists, a steal and three blocked shots.
The Raptors are a better basketball team when Johnson is on the floor.
"How about him?" Kyle Lowry said. "There’s nothing else to say. That man has been amazing since December. He’s been amazing. He’s our heart and soul, to be honest. No one talks about him as much, but honestly, he’s our heart and soul."
After the game, Brampton, ON-native Tristan Thompson took responsibility for the loss and praised the play of Toronto’s big men.
"You saw the third quarter," Thompson said. "First of all, for the bigs, me and Tyler (Zeller), we let the team down with Amir Johnson having 17 and 16 and whatnot. That’s unacceptable. Valanciunas had like 11 and nine. Unacceptable. It starts from the bigs. If we do our job everyone else will do their job. It starts from there."
The Canadian big man had 11 points and 10 rebounds in the loss for the Cavs.
Casey likes JV’s attitude but...
While Valanciunas played nearly 33 minutes on Sunday, he was on the bench for the final three minutes. After the game, Casey explained why he decided to pull him to close out the win.
"I had to get Jonas out at the end," Casey said. "Bless his heart, he said, ‘Coach, he’s coming really fast.’ I said, ‘Guess what, all of them are coming fast’…Everything is so fast for rookies. I don’t care who you are, what level of rookie you are, it is a learning experience. I’ve been in this now for a long time and I’ve seen every rookie come through and that is what they have to learn. The speed of the game. They don't play nice. They don’t play nice. And they don’t play slow. JV’s heart is in the right place. He’s working, he’s getting better."
Casey also stressed that while they will be playing younger guys to close out the season, each player will still have to earn his minutes to be on the floor.
"Guys are going to come in and out of the games, but you’re not just going to stay out there to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to play the rookies.’" Casey said. "It doesn’t work that way. We’re cheating the program if we coach those guys that way. That’s what it’s going to be."
Acknowledging that teams make mistakes and it’s a learning process, Casey smiled before saying, "I know where we’re at, I know where we’re going and I know how to get there."