In another victory, the Toronto Raptors have managed to lead from opening tip to final buzzer. This is sort of a big deal.
For a team that started the season 4-19, consistency is starting to show through the cracks. In a 99-78 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, the Raptors jumped ahead by 13 in the first quarter and didn’t look back. It was one of the few times this season where the team took control and didn’t relinquish it. Instead of letting up, the team chose to step on their opponent’s neck and the result was an easy victory.
Five games into a six-game homestand and the energy is good in Raptorland. Guys are focused, but feeling light. After taking care of the Bobcats, John Lucas III held court with reporters discussing favourite movies of all time while being heckled by Alan Anderson for the number of shots he got up in four minutes of play. In less than five minutes of playing time, Lucas got up for field goal attempts, made three and finished with seven points. Shooting back at Anderson, a smiling Lucas told him he would have matched Anderson’s game-high 16 points if only he’d had another minute on the floor.
Anderson’s family was on hand to watch the game, including a younger member of the Anderson clan, clad in a mini-Anderson jersey who had jumped on top of Amir Johnson and was whacking him with a thunderstick as Johnson played along and looked like a 6-foot-11 kid himself. Terrence Ross was bouncing in and out of the locker room, joking with each of his teammates before leaving and Quincy Acy wore a huge smile after speaking with a rather large media scrum waiting at his locker.
It was a good night for the Raptors. It’s the kind of night that they have earned after a disastrous start that threatened to doom the season. Guys are playing well, both collectively and individually. The ball is moving, different players are stepping up and there’s a genuine sense of appreciation and camaraderie in the locker room and on the bench.
It’s pretty amazing what a few wins can do for the psyche of a team. When Doug Collins was in town on Wednesday evening with the Philadelphia 76ers, he spoke about his own team’s recent struggles, losing 16 of their last 21 games.
“I don’t want us to settle into losing,” he said. “Losing numbs you. And I don’t want our guys to settle into that.”
In a very similar situation while getting blown out night after night on the West Coast in the beginning of December, the Raptors chose to feel every bit of pain and frustration resulting from that excruciating trip. Rather than fall apart, they came home, regrouped and started playing together.
The Bobcats are on the flip side of the coin, having won just two of their last 23 games. If you’ve followed this Raptors team for any amount of time, the pained expressions on the faces of Bobcats players at the ACC on Friday night were all too familiar. While they have some extremely exciting young talent in second-year player Kemba Walker and rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, they are a ways away from where they want to be. Fans of Toronto sports franchises have endured this step. More than once.
While the victory over Charlotte was one that the Raptors were expected to get, nothing is given in this league and it’s important to give credit when it’s due. Toronto has finally figured out the simplest of basketball truths: They are stronger together playing as a unit than they will ever be playing as individuals in a star-driven league. Equally as important, they’re showing that they didn’t settle into losing and the rough start to their season wasn’t able to numb them.
Landry Fields continues to dominate the glass
Playing at the small forward position, Fields is crashing the glass on both ends of the floor. He had a game-high 11 rebounds against the Bobcats, six of them offensive. He’s provided a huge boost to the starting lineup energy-wise and his teammates are feeding off of it.
In addition to his 11 boards, he had eight points and made all four of his free throws. Before Fields underwent surgery, his free throws were horribly off and a great cause of frustration for him. It’s huge to see the improvements since his return.
Ed Davis/Amir Johnson due
Once again the two big men had big games for the Raptors. Combining for 25 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots, Davis and Johnson continued to show their ever-improving chemistry on both ends of the floor. Dwane Casey has praised their connection defensively, saying the two are, “like twin brothers tied at the hip, rotating [defensively].”
Against the Bobcats, the two were on the same page all night. The stand out play came in the first quarter, when Johnson delivered a beautiful pass to Davis waiting under the hoop for an uncontested dunk. Smart, simple basketball.
Amir Johnson’s heart and playing through injury
Johnson is a guy who will not complain. If he can walk, he can play and if he’s in uniform he isn’t going to complain about anything that ails him. After he finished the game against the Bobcats with 13 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots, Casey had a lot of praise to heap upon Johnson’s shoulders.
During his post-game scrum he told the media: “I love Amir Johnson. He is a warrior. He brings it every night. He has a bum ankle. Most guys with an ankle like his would be out for two or three months. He is a warrior. He’s the heart and soul of our team. Amir brings it every night. He is a warrior.”
In case you didn’t get that: Casey considers Johnson a warrior.
All season Casey has preached defence. All week, the Raptors have talked about their increased comfort on the court defensively. Shooting 45 per cent for the game against Charlotte, Toronto held the Bobcats to 37 per cent shooting from the floor. Most importantly, they didn’t let up at all defensively after earning an early double-digit lead.
After the game Casey talked about the importance of his team playing a full 48 minutes against the Bobcats. “The hardest thing to do is to play with the lead,” he said. “It is about focus, attention to detail, staying in the moment and pushing every possession. That’s what our guys did tonight.”
Containing speedy point guards
In their past three victories, the Raptors have done a solid job on clamping down on the opposing point guard. Each of those point guards have been speedy, scoring guards. Starting with Rookie of the Year favourite Damian Lillard, continuing with Most Improved candidate Jrue Holiday and carrying over Friday night against Kemba Walker, Toronto has managed to neutralize the scoring guard.