If there is one certainty in the NBA, it’s that a winning locker room is a happy locker room.
After defeating the Phoenix Suns 101-97 to snap a six-game losing streak on Friday night, the Toronto Raptors were in good spirits.
The victory came at the perfect time, too. The team will head out on the road Saturday for a five-game West Coast swing that tips off Monday in Denver.
It wasn’t an easy victory, either. Nothing has really come easily for the Raptors this season. After a handful of heartbreaking losses, including double- and triple-overtime defeats, the Raptors were able to hang on down the stretch against the Suns. They were able to finally close out a game and it happened because of their effort on the defensive end.
Against the Suns, the Raptors got contributions across the board. First, look at the defensive stops down the stretch from Andrea Bargnani.
After struggling with just two points and one rebound, Bargnani played solid defence as the Suns scored once in their final seven attempts of the game. Bargnani also grabbed the biggest rebound of the game and iced things for the Raptors by hitting two free throws to give Toronto a two-possession advantage with 3.1 seconds remaining.
Jose Calderon was — once again — a saviour for the Raptors, providing a boost off of the bench in a game where Kyle Lowry looked like a player still working his way back from a two-and-a-half week break.
Calderon scored 13 points to go with nine assists, five of them going to Amir Johnson. Johnson played after being unable to do anything in shootaround because of a sprained ankle that was so severe he needed an MRI a day earlier. Johnson gritted his way to 16 points and six rebounds for the Raptors.
* The Pietrus era begins: After inking a contract with the Raptors on Friday morning, Pietrus knew he would be available to play against the Suns. He didn’t expect to see more than 30 minutes of action. Coach Dwane Casey also didn’t expect to leave him out there so long, especially without any time to teach him the offence. While Pietrus admitted he didn’t know any of the plays, he gave the team good minutes and made two of his five three-point attempts, opening up the floor as he remained a threat from deep.
* Strong rebounding backcourt: DeMar DeRozan tied Ed Davis for a game-high eight rebounds to go with his game-high 23 points. Kyle Lowry added seven rebounds of his own. The backcourt combining for 15 rebounds is one reason why the Raptors were able to out-rebound the Suns 41-34. After the game, Casey talked about the importance of guys finding ways to do other things when they’re having off nights on the offensive end of the floor.
* Amir’s toughness: Casey wants a tough, hard-nosed team. Lowry is definitely a gritty and an intense addition to the squad, but if they’re looking for heart, they need not look further than Johnson. After the game, Johnson admitted the ankle was sore and that he didn’t know if he’d be able to play when he arrived at the arena this afternoon. After getting cleared to play, he said he got it taped and didn’t think about it again.
When he was asked how he’s able to play through it and still be the first player down the court he said, “That’s just how I play, I guess. I don’t really think about it. I just…do it…I guess it’s just natural.”
* A rough stretch for Kyle Lowry: As Lowry works himself back into game shape from his recent two-and-a-half week layoff after spraining his ankle in Oklahoma City, he has to be patient. To his credit, he has been cautious with himself and with the process of getting everyone on the same page offensive and defensively, but it has been a test for Lowry in the past few games. Against former teams Houston and Memphis he wasn’t able to have the impact that he wanted to have. Against the Suns, he still looked a step behind that explosive player who was posting All-Star numbers to start the season before his injury.
* Defense: Both teams finished the game shooting an identical 48.1 per cent from the floor. The Raptors got stops when they needed them down the stretch (again, credit goes to Bargnani), but they did just enough to win the game. Both teams were sloppy in this one and the pace of the game was slower than the one Casey said he wanted his team to be playing with when this season started. With two days of practices, Saturday in Toronto and Sunday in Denver, hopefully the team will be able to get Pietrus familiar with the defensive schemes. The practice time will also help Lowry who has been using games and shootarounds to work the rust off.
* Calderon kept an open dialogue with Pietrus during the game, assisting him through plays and calling out where to be on the court. “I was just trying to help him out as much as possible,” Calderon said. “He was alright. When you haven’t played basketball for awhile, you just need a few days to know what plays we are running. We have a couple of practices before the next game, so I will get him ready.”
* Johnson credited the defence from Bargnani saying, “He was able to defend (Luis) Scola and grab the rebound at the same time. That was big. Andrea was definitely moving his feet and was able to get stops down the stretch.”
* Rapper Drake sat courtside and was presented with an Amir Johnson jersey from the Raptors’ mascot during the game. After the final buzzer sounded, Johnson walked over to greet him and the two embraced on the court. In the locker room, Johnson talked about their friendship and said it means a lot to have support. “You’ve got the Jay Z’s coming to the Brooklyn games, you’ve got the Spike Lee’s for the New York games. Hopefully we can get him coming every now and then, have his own chair. It’s cool that he came. I’ve gotta get [Justin] Bieber back in here, too.”