In typical Toronto Raptors fashion, their 92-78 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats couldn’t be an easy one.
Despite the Bobcats bringing in a league-worst 14-50 record, the Raptors allowed them to hang around for the first three quarters of the game. They needed nearly 44 minutes and a career-high 21 rebounds from Amir Johnson. They needed 28 points from Rudy Gay. They also needed the Bobcats to fall apart in the fourth quarter.
Luckily for Raptors fans, Charlotte obliged.
After shooting a dismal 33 per cent for the game, things unraveled in a big way for the Bobcats in the final quarter. How bad did it get? They made their first and only field goal of the fourth with 3:03 remaining. They scored just 10 points in the period, eight coming at the foul line. They allowed the Raptors to shoot 53 per cent in the quarter and converted just one of their 13 attempts to shoot eight per cent for the quarter.
It was as ugly as it sounds, but the Raptors were able to hold onto the lead and walk off the court with another win.
"That was a heck of an effort by Amir Johnson. The guy plays (44) minutes and that was a heck of an effort," coach Dwane Casey said.
Johnson was humble as ever after the game, saying he wasn't aware of the milestone until he looked up and noticed the 21 rebounds listed on the jumbotron staring back at him. Most important to him was that his career night came with a victory.
"For me it's just playing to win. Career (nights) is one thing, but getting wins is what I really want. We're just playing hard and trying to get as many of these games as we can."
While his team stepped up its effort on the defensive end when it mattered, Casey was not impressed with holding the Bobcats to a one field-goal fourth quarter. He was upset with his team for even allowing themselves to be in a desperation situation going into the fourth.
"That is solid, but why not do that for four quarters?" he said. "Be greedy. That is my challenge and our challenge as a team. You showed that you can get down, get grimy and get dirty. That is the way we want to play, but we cannot spot a team that many possession and expect to come out on top."
With playoff hopes all but dashed, Casey has had his team break up the remaining games in five-game chunks. They have been approaching each group of games as an individual best-of-five "mini-series" to help the players have a goal each time they step onto the floor.
After starting their "mini-series" in Phoenix, the team came into the game against the Bobcats 2-2 in their last four games. The victory against the Bobcats gives them a 3-2 record in their past five. Still, for Johnson, he isn't ready to give up the post-season dream.
"It's not over yet," Johnson said. "It's three more games until we're actually completely done. For me, we're still in it."
Pressed about his hard work on the boards and his nonchalant answers about his achievements, Johnson laughed. "It's not like I'm making magic out there," he said.
"It's just how I play."
Telfair provides boost off bench
On a night where Kyle Lowry picked up two personal fouls midway through the first quarter, Casey went to Sebastian Telfair early. After the reserve point guard's positive stint, he elected to stay with him. "He did a solid job," Casey said. "He's a pro. He's a veteran."
Telfair played 21 minutes off the bench and scored 11 points. He dished five assists and got to the free throw line eight times. Casey explained his decision to go with Telfair over John Lucas by pointing to the former's playmaking abilities while stressing it was a situational move.
"It's nothing John Lucas did wrong," Casey said. "I just thought we needed that steady floor general out there that Bassy gives us. John has done a heck of a job in that role too, I just thought that Bassy's defence and his floor general abilities, his leadership out there on the floor was what we needed. Everybody that came off the bench was ready to play."
Making games mean something down the stretch
With the focus of the season shifting to developing the young players, it can be tough for teams to retain their focus. When the "bigger picture" goal (read: playoffs) is no more, the games can blur together in a way that is different from when each and every win or loss matters.
Through the first three quarters against the Bobcats, the Raptors looked like a team that was looking for a reason to find their groove.
"It is a malaise of this time of year, but we cannot let it set in," Casey said. "We had 20 turnovers. If we have 20 turnovers on Sunday (against Miami), then it will be 40 points. We need to take care of the ball. I thought we turned it up in the second half. The second unit gave us a burst of energy."
Johnson said the decision to have each five-game segment act as its own series has helped.
"We can just focus on those five games and we're basically playing rounds," he said. "It's kind of like playoff rounds. It's definitely helping us."