Playing time for Raptors’ James Johnson a mystery

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Dwane Casey is not deaf, and he badly wants to lead the Toronto Raptors to a victory in their first-round series against the Washington Wizards.

He wants to win Game 2. He almost has to. Teams that have fallen behind 2-0 at home to open a seven-game set have a 3-26 record in those series, according to

These facts are worth stating in the face of what has been a simmering issue all season and one that could explode at Casey’s feet should the Raptors fall short Tuesday night with James Johnson glued to the bench as he was in Game 1.

The helpful ACC crowd noticed this on Saturday and tried to assist Casey in his substitution pattern by chanting “We Want James” as the Wizards were beginning to split the game open in the third quarter.

On this occasion Casey says he didn’t hear the crowd, but on others he has. He didn’t listen then either.

“I love our fans but I can’t [listen to them],” he said after putting his team through practice at the ACC. “[But] I remember one game it was a five-point game and everybody was [yelling] ‘Get Bruno [little-used rookie Bruno Caboclo] in the game’ and Bruno was in street clothes.”

In deference to the crowd, Johnson is no Bruno Caboclo. He is the Raptors’ red-haired, tattooed statistical giant, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound enigma capable of some of the most remarkable basketball feats imaginable.

“Everyone’s a fan,” says DeMar DeRozan. “It’s a amazing when we’re at practice and we’re scrimmaging, the things he’s able to do at his size. A lot people who don’t know him would be amazed at the things he’s able to do.”

Just ask Detroit Pistons centre Andre Drummond, on whom Johnson authored the Raptors highlight dunk of the season that Johnson immortalized by saying: “I cocked that joint back and banged it on him.”

It’s cult-hero stuff, but when fans chant for Johnson, signed to a two-year, $5-million contract to help guard big wing players like Paul Pierce of the Wizards, they are chanting for a player who passes the eye test and is pleasing analytically as well.

Among Raptors regulars Johnson had the second-best defensive rating (101.9) and the fifth-best offensive rating (108.9) for the third-best net rating this season. He had the second-best true shooting percentage on the team and is the best rebounder among the wings.

And Johnson has ears too. He didn’t play Saturday but got a trail of goosebumps along his ornate arms when the crowd started calling his name.

“I did [hear them]. I did. I did,” he said Monday. “I love our fans. It gave me a warm spot in my heart. I got the chills a little bit. At the same time, I don’t want that to affect guys on our bench or guys that are playing in the game, distracting them from what they’re doing out there. It’s nice of them to do that. I really appreciate it. But, cheer for the Raptors.”

That Johnson would express himself this way is proof of progress. Johnson played for Casey in the 2011-12 season and eventually found himself on the bench after they butted heads in practice a few too many times. He was out of town the year after.

His playing time has fluctuated wildly this year, which is one reason he’s a cause of sorts for a certain segment of fans. That they tend to overlap with those who have lost faith with Casey is to be expected: That Johnson doesn’t play is proof Casey can’t coach, all other evidence aside.

Johnson is not a Casey basher, it should be noted.

“I think we’re in a better place than I’ve been with any coaches thus far in my career,” he said. “It’s definitely nothing [wrong] with that. Like I said, it’s his decision, wanting to win. And he’s going to stick to it. He always has. He always will.”

Johnson started 10 games in February when DeRozan was injured and found himself DNP-CD – benched, basically – twice in March and his minutes cut nearly in half, from 26 to 14 per game.

Was it hard to watch, Saturday, believing you could help?

“Maybe in my younger years. But I’m older now, more mature. All this just comes with the game. I know the coaches don’t want to lose and my teammates don’t want to lose and he’s going to go with what he thought was the best option so you just have to be a man about it and cheer guys on like a teammate.”

Which brings us to the most pressing question of all in the great James Johnson playing time mystery.

Why doesn’t Casey use him more consistently?

In this Casey is a bit hamstrung. He can’t share exactly why Johnson’s minutes don’t always match his productivity in those minutes, although he can point out the obvious: After finding minutes for Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams off the bench among his wings, things get tricky. Similarly Johnson is fighting for time with Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough (another analytic darling) up front. His mantra all season has been when the matchups call for it, Johnson will play.

Other than that Casey’s not in position to outline exactly where a player falls short in a public forum. Is he engaged in practices? Meetings? Does he pick up quickly on the kind of micro-adjustments that are put in quickly during a playoff series?

The truth is we don’t know.

But something doesn’t add up. Johnson offered some of his own insight when he allowed that after 83 games this season he’s still uncomfortable playing the four spot.

“I’m not the greatest at [playing] the four, running the plays — the [offensive] aspect of the game,” he said. “It’s kind of hard for a coach to tell me to be here, screen here, come do this, and then [there is] a 24-second shot clock.”

Casey acknowledged the issue; “We can throw him out there [at the four] but now are the other four guys going to be lost if he doesn’t understand? So again, there’s a lot of factors that go into it. It’s not just putting one player in the game and saying ‘OK, voila, let it work.’ It’s a lot of things that go into that … James has been in this role the whole year and again, there’s going to be a time in place for him in the playoffs.”

The question is when, as time runs downhill in the post-season. The Raptors aren’t in crisis mode now, but the outlines are visible from here.

Casey will ultimately have to answer for his rotation. A win in Game 1 and no one is chanting for James Johnson. A loss in Game 2 and the crowd might be calling for Casey.

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