With a game against the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday evening, the Toronto Raptors used Saturday’s practice to prepare while sprinkling in a little bit of fun, too.
One day after an improbable overtime victory in Indiana, the team went through practice and then stayed for an extra hour and change to get shots up and to have a mini dunk contest cram session with rookie Terrence Ross at one end of the court.
Chairs assembled on the sideline, the guys sat down and discussed possible dunks and strategy for the contest. Players would suddenly hop up to demonstrate ideas or to physically move Ross’ arms to show him what they were describing; laughter and shouts heard from the other end of the gym as Dwane Casey talked about Sunday’s game.
While the arrival of Rudy Gay hasn’t completely morphed the Raptors into a playoff team, it has brought a confidence and the awareness that comes from knowing there’s a proven go-to guy on the team. Toronto finally has a player to go to when the game is on the line, as it has been so many times this season.
After DeMar DeRozan pieced together a strong first half, pacing the Raptors, his shot began to falter in the fourth. This was when Gay swooped in, separating himself from a disastrous start to save the Raptors from sinking. There was that steal at the end of regulation, then the pass to Amir Johnson to give the team a chance to head to overtime. Then, in overtime, the game-winner with 1.6 seconds remaining on the clock.
“It was huge,” Casey said. “Him (Gay) just fighting through the frustration, fighting through some of the calls he thought he should have gotten through the game. He fought through it and he came through at the right time.”
DeRozan continues to be one of Gay’s biggest supporters on the team, thrilled to have another perimeter scorer playing alongside him.
“I kept telling him, ‘Listen, don’t worry about it. Just keep shooting. That’s going to fall,’” DeRozan said. “He misses five, six shots in a row, we’ve still got to be aggressive. Especially with me and him, we can’t let that get us down. I just told him to keep going. That it’s going to fall. He kept going and was good. I tried to do my best the first half, the first couple quarters and he finished it off.”
While many continue to wonder how two players with similar skillsets will coexist, DeRozan isn’t one of them.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Some people think you have two scoring players on the same team they’re supposed to go back-to-back scoring every time down. Sometimes one’s got to hold it down the first half, first quarter, whatever. We’re able to count on the next one to finish the game.”
Through a grind-it-out fourth quarter and overtime, the Raptors hung in against an extremely physical Pacers team.
“That was huge,” Casey said. “That was the No. 1 thing on our list of the scouting report, meet their physicality.”
Even more important than the physicality, though, was that the team dug their heels in when things got tough. It has been an up and down season, but the game in Indiana was a huge step in the right direction.
“Even last month we would have dropped our shoulders and surrendered,” Casey said. “The toughness of the game, the frustration of the game, the frustrations of some of the calls, whatever, but we didn’t. Everybody kept their heads up, stayed engaged.”
LeBron James has a fan in DeRozan
One thing you should know about DeRozan: He watches more basketball than a lot of NBA players. While some guys like downtime when they’re not playing and others focus on tape of their opponents and their own team, DeRozan is a hoops junkie who is always up on what happened the night before. After Saturday’s practice, I spent some time talking basketball with the fourth-year swingman and with the all-star break nearing, I wanted to ask him who he thought should win mid-season MVP.
It didn’t take long for him to think of an answer. With a laugh he quickly named LeBron James as his choice for MVP.
“Man … just, you look at it like last night, he had 30 points on 9-for-11 shooting. The first game against us this season, he missed like one or two shots and had 25-plus. That’s crazy to me. He’s shooting over 55 per cent this season. That’s like, crazy.”
I asked him if LeBron is the best player he’d ever seen or played with. We excluded Michael Jordan because DeRozan is too young. His answer said it all.
“I look at Kobe like he’s an assassin, he’s a killer,” DeRozan said. “LeBron, he can be an assassin, a killer, a kidnapper, a robber. Whatever you can think of. He’s just, he’s unbelievable. It’s crazy what he’s able to do. Unreal.”
Rookie Ross adjusting to his first Toronto winter
It’s no secret that Portland native Ross wasn’t excited for winter to arrive. Rather than being excited to experience his first bout of Canadian winter, he was worried about having enough layers in his wardrobe to stay warm. Post games, in the locker room, he has been decked out in hat and gloves for months now.
After the team arrived home from Indiana to the aftermath of a storm that left Toronto with a foot of freshly fallen snow, Ross wasn’t sure how he was going to get home from the airport.
DeRozan said this winter is the worst he’s experienced in his four years in Toronto and had a laugh when he was asked how his rookie handled the storm.
“If you could have seen the look on his face last night when he realized he had to drive home last night,” DeRozan said. “He was shocked.”
In less than a week’s time both DeRozan and Ross will be trading in their winter gear for warmer temperatures. DeRozan will head home to L.A. to visit his family and goddaughter while Ross will be in Houston hoping to fire up the crowd in the dunk contest.