Gone from the night before when the Bulls waltzed into Toronto and came away with a huge win, was the pressure the Raptors were feeling individually and collectively. No one Raptor was trying to do it all on his own Monday night, although when Andrea Bargnani got hot in the second quarter, the Raptors kept feeding him, leading to a 17-point frame for the big Italian.
He wound up with a game-high 33 points, one shy of his career high set earlier this year against Indiana. For the game, the Raptors had both Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack getting into the lane at will, setting up teammates for easy baskets or finding the open shooter outside for open looks. Both hit double digits in assists with Jack getting his second double-double of the season with 15 points to go with his 12 assists.
“Once everyone starts passing the ball it’s contagious,” Calderon said. “Sunday everyone was trying to win that game by themselves.”
The difference last night was that the Raps were knocking down open shots. They finished the night shooting 60% from both the field and from three-point range.
There’s no way to know whether Charlie Villanueva’s bold guarantee of a victory at noon on Monday via his Twitter account had any impact on the game, but those who like to see statements like: “Guarantee win tonight, yeah I said it” come back and bite those dumb enough to make them, had to be smiling.
Amir Johnson just smiled when told of Villanueva’s boastful promise before the game. “Did he?” Johnson said. “That’s his thoughts. We’re going to come out and play.”
And the Raptors did, including Johnson, who finished with a career high 26 points against his former team.
“I wasn’t worried about the career high,” Johnson said while teammates jokingly ripped him for finishing with just two rebounds. “I was more concerned about the win. We just have to pray that Boston beats Chicago.”
For the season, Johnson is averaging just over 17 minutes a night which is more than he has ever had in his career, but in the past four with Bosh out, Johnson has been pulling down 26 minutes a night.
And with Bosh out, minutes aren’t the only thing going up. Johnson is averaging 12 points and 6.5 rebounds over that span as well.
All of which comes at a very good time for a guy who becomes a free agent this summer.
He won’t get mentioned in the LeBron and Dwyane Wade conversations but a team looking to fill out its bench with some energy and hustle could do far worse.
Johnson’s hustle and energy were not lost on the Raptors either.
He became one of Jay Triano’s favourite topics, although that might be as much about what he was getting in those departments from the rest of his team as it was about Johnson.
Johnson hasn’t given much thought to where he might wind up next season, but he’s certainly not counting Toronto out.
“It’s a given that from the get-go (of the off-season) I’ll be working on my strength and some of the things I can improve on,” he said. “I go into every off-season thinking: ‘What can I do to get better?’ I’m not the kind of player who takes many days off in the off-season.”
As for who he will be playing for, Johnson isn’t sure other than to say he would welcome a return to the Raptors. Asked specifically if there was anything that he experienced this season that would turn him off the organization, Johnson replied emphatically, “No not at all.”
“We tried to go inside to Andrea as much as we could,” said coach Jay Triano. “We thought he had a little bit of a mismatch there and then they switched and when they put a bigger guy on him, he took him outside. He had a great night, he was able to shoot the ball and score from the low post or outside.”
And Johnson was equally a beneficiary. His hard rolls to the basket off high screens got him all kinds of easy baskets and when the defence went to concentrate on Bargnani, he had wide-open shots.
“It depends on how the other team plays defence, too,” said Jose Calderon. “Today they didn’t want to leave Andrea at the beginning so (Johnson) was always open so that’s why I could just find him. The second half, we had Hedo (Turkoglu) at the four and Andrea for more threes.”
In stark contrast to Sunday night, when the Raptors could get nothing going against the Bulls, the offence was running perfectly all night. Jack had 12 assists, Calderon had 11 and Toronto had 37 assists as a team — a season high.
“Sunday, everybody was trying too hard to help the team, maybe shooting the ball and scoring points and it didn’t work,” said Calderon. “We tried to find the wide-open guy and it worked. It was a great effort and it was a great night to see the whole team enjoying it out there and having fun. That’s what we have to do, share the ball.”
Maybe the believers found themselves moping on Monday; the home loss to Chicago on Sunday was a bringdown. But the Raptors were loose and laughing at the Palace. They were laughing at, among other things, the fact that Charlie Villanueva guaranteed a Pistons win on Twitter on Monday afternoon. Villanueva, of course, is the Pistons forward who was traded here from Toronto a few years back, and word of his words seemed to breathe a little life into the pre-game locker room.
“Fuel for the fire,” said DeMar DeRozan. But various Raptors were simply amused that a member of a team that’s won all of 26 games this season would be in the mood for grand statements. Villanueva was unapologetic
“They’re fighting for a playoff spot, but they can go on vacation with us, too. Especially (because) they’re the team that traded me a long time ago,” he said before the game.
His vengeance amounted to 16 points. Andrea Bargnani, the shooting big man whose 2006 arrival cued Villanueva’s departure, poured in 33. But it was another player facing an former squad, Toronto’s Amir Johnson, who had a career-high 26 points against the team that drafted him in the second round in 2005.
Johnson’s rare scoring outburst—he’s in the league for his energetic work on the glass—cued some locker-room trash talk.
“Two rebounds!” hollered Jarrett Jack, the Raptors point guard, from across the locker room, reciting the facts. “You’re Hollywood now. You don’t want to do the dirty work anymore.”
The home team did right by their fans. It didn’t so anything so silly as beat the Toronto Raptors and thus jeopardize its position in the NBA draft lottery, and it announced a massive rollback on ticket prices: 10 per cent to 50 per cent, across the board, with price-reduction protection should costs go lower still.
Meanwhile, Raptors fans will have to go to the final night of the 2009-10 season to learn their fate after cruising to a comfortable 111-97 win over Detroit, snapping the Raptors’ five-game losing string and keeping their playoff hopes alive.
Toronto finishes its regular season at home tomorrow, against the New York Knicks, another lottery-bound club.
The Raptors trail the Chicago Bulls by a half-game in the Eastern Conference. Toronto holds the tiebreaker between the two clubs. The Bulls play tonight against the Boston Celtics and tomorrow against the Charlotte Bobcats.
“You’d like to have the opportunity to [control your destiny] but we missed our chance,” Raptors head coach Jay Triano said.
And while it’s unlikely the Raptors (39-42) will be rolling back season-ticket prices as penance for a poor season, the team at least gave the impression that it wanted to keep playing this spring in front of an unusually quiet capacity crowd of 22,076 at the Palace.
The Raptors have a five-time all-star, albeit an injured one, and three under-achieving, well-paid jumpshooters who compose the supporting cast. Inconsistent contributors, with those levels of inconsistency varying, fill out the rest of the roster. They are not what you would call scrappy.
Still, forward Amir Johnson was trying to pitch the new identity.
"We’ve got everybody not counting on us," Johnson said before the Raptors game against Detroit on Monday night in the wake of a disheartening loss to Chicago at home the night before.
"We’re kind of like the underdogs. If we do [make the playoffs], ain’t nobody going to go for us against Cleveland. We’ve really got to go in there and just stop talking and play."
For a night, that mentality seemed to kick in. The Raptors do not control their own destiny, but they do have a pulse following their 111-97 victory.
In order to make the playoffs, Toronto still needs the Bulls, who defeated the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday, to cough up one of their final two games, be it Tuesday at home to Boston or Wednesday in Charlotte. But should that happen, and should the Raptors win on Wednesday night against New York, they will back into the playoffs.
"I learned a lot, there were a lot of old school players here," Johnson said. "I learned to play hard, foul hard. All I could do is sit back and learn."
Unfortunately, it never materialized. Although he improved every year, and tearing up the D-League, he never made the huge leap that was expected. A year after signing a three-year, $11 million extension in 2007, he was thrust into the starting lineup for new coach Michael Curry and struggled through the year, losing his starting spot to the dependable McDyess.
He was dealt to Milwaukee last June, and traded again to Toronto a month later. Although his stats have improved (5.8 points, 4.9 rebounds), it hasn’t been until recently Johnson has started to put it together. He had his two best games as a pro recently, with 16 points and 10 rebounds against Cleveland a week ago. He followed it up with an 18-13 showing three days later in Atlanta.
"I’m just glad I was able to come to a different team and I’ve done well," he said. "I don’t think anything went wrong. There was a bunch of good players."
After the game, his teammates playfully chided Johnson about his two rebounds, telling him, ‘A dead man could’ve gotten more.’ It reminded Johnson of his Detroit days, where he and Jason Maxiell were always on-guard for one of Rasheed Wallace’s practical jokes. That said, there’s no question where his loyalties lie.
"I wanted to get in the playoffs, so there were no mixed feelings," Johnson said. "I still talk to the guys, but I want the win."
This was a great game for Toronto fans who were hoping to see their team fight their way into the eighth spot in the Eastern conference playoffs. For Pistons fans, it was a feeling all the same, just another reminder of what kind of season it has been in Detroit. Yet another game for the Pistons to fight for the first quarter but cant hold it together for the full 48 minutes.
Pistons coach John Kuester praised the deadly shooting by the Raptors (39-42), led by Bargnani and former Piston Amir Johnson, who scored 26 points.
"I give them credit," said Kuester. "They really shot the ball truly well. You shoot 60% on three and 60% overall. I know our defense wasn’t all that great, but I still give them a lot of credit. "
The Pistons outscored Toronto, 26-24, in the first quarter and 25-22 in the fourth. They just couldn’t contain Bargnani and his fellow Raptors in between.
"We cut it to 13 in the third period, and I thought maybe we could have made a run at it, but we just couldn’t get over the hump," said Kuester.
Raptors coach Jay Triano lauded the effort of Bargnani. "He was able to shoot the ball, score from the low post and outside," said Triano.
Piston rookie Jonas Jerebko never got going after picking up two fouls 4 minutes into the first quarter.
Charlie Villanueva, who replaced Jerebko, finished with 16 points. Prince kept Detroit in it with sure shooting and solid rebounding, netting 11 points in the first half and showing plenty of spirit.
In tonight’s game, the Raptors were led by 33 from Andrea Bargnani, who shot 5 for 6 from behind the arc, a huge bounce back after having gone 4 for 23 in the last 4 contests combined. Bargnani was also strongly supported by a career-high 26 from Amir Johnson who was playing against his former squad. The Raptors as a team also managed to collect an astonishing 37 assists on 45 made field goals -with Jack and Calderon collecting 12 and 11 respectfully. The losing Pistons, who have now dropped to 26-55, were led by 24 from Ben Gordon.
The Raptors next play on Wednesday in the regular season finale against the New York Knicks at the Air Canada Centre. Be sure to check back on Raptors Rapture for the final pre-game tee-up of the season -unless of course I get the honour of teeing up the first round of the playoffs.
The Raptors have owned the Knicks this season, with or without Chris Bosh. On Wednesday night, on their home floor with the Knicks standing between them and a chance at a playoff spot, the Raptors have to be heavily favored.
Of course nothing has come easily to the Toronto Raptors since the All-Star break.
Chris Bosh and Antoine Wright are out indefinitely. And the Raptors new-found hope, Sonny Weems had to be helped off of the court in Detroit unable to put any weight on his foot.
Toronto may not be in a position to determine their own playoff fate. But Toronto fans should recognize that every game down the stretch of this season to game number 82 has been meaningful. Some of them have been excruciatingly painful to watch, but they have all been meaningful.
There is a part of me that would like to believe that Andrea Bargnani read yesterday’s Zan Post Game and was inspired to put together a 33 point night. I realize that he, most likely did not, but it was nice to see him take on the role of team leader with confidence. He was unstoppable tonight. Bargnani is a tough match up on any given night and the more he exploits this mismatch against opposing teams, the more the Raptors will win games. This team is at its best when Andrea is rolling. Tonight he could do no wrong. If this is the player we are going to see consistently then the Raptors could be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
So Bargnani has something like his best game of the season and even chips in 7 rebounds. Of course, he only got to the line twice with 22 shot attempts. That’s a FT/FG ratio of .091 (Read this post if you want to understand what I am talking about). Still, 33 points is 33 points. If he can play like this against New York and then (if the Raptors make the playoffs) against Cleveland, will that make it easier to trade him? Of course, if that happens, does that give Colangelo a reason NOT to trade him?
Amir Johnson had fewer rebounds than assists, shot 6-7 from the line (where he’s shooting .607 this season), and outscored every Piston, including their prized free agent signing, Ben Gordon. You think Amir wanted to show the Pistons they made a mistake when they dumped him so they could open up some salary cap room?