Amir Johnson has been extremely important for the Toronto Raptors this season. - John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
The Toronto Raptors fell victim to the Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon in what was the Heat's 22nd straight victory. Despite the loss, Amir Johnson was once again solid as he continues to build his case to be the starting power forward for this team going forward.
Things went as expected on Sunday afternoon with the Miami Heat taking care of the Toronto Raptors handily 105-83 for their 22nd win a row, tying the 2007-08 Houston Rockets for the second longest winning streak in NBA history.
The Raptors started slow, but came alive in the second half, cutting the lead to two entering the fourth quarter before the Heat -- as they have done countless times during their win streak -- simply took over the game.
The usual suspects were out in full force for the Heat. LeBron James narrowly missed a triple double, notching 22 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists. Dwayne Wade had 24 points and 9 assists while Chris Bosh added 18 points on 7-10 shooting from the floor.
Ray Allen was the catalyst for the Heat's run in the fourth quarter. Allen scored 16 points on 5-6 shooting from the floor including 4-5 from beyond the arc in the game's final frame.
On the Raptors side of things, Rudy Gay had one of his best games as a Raptor, finishing with 27 points and 8 rebounds. Gay's 14 third-quarter points sparked the Raptor comeback.
DeMar DeRozan struggled out of the gate, making just one of his first 10 shots. Despite coming alive a bit in the third quarter, he finished 5-15 and -- combined with a poor showing by Kyle Lowry -- was a big reason why the Raptors were not able to hang with the Heat.
Conversely, Toronto's starting frontcourt was a big reason why they were able to stay in the game as long as they did.
Jonas Valanciunas was strong on both ends of the floor, taking advantage of his matchup with the smaller Udonis Haslem. The young Lithuanian showed confidence in a number of post moves that we simply did not see from him at the beginning of the season. At this juncture in the season, it is the development in his game that has become one of the biggest bright spots for the club.
Although Valanciunas was solid, it was his frontcourt partner, Amir Johnson who once again stood out for the Raptors.
Johnson had, at one point well into the third quarter; tallied as many rebounds as the entire Miami Heat team. Ultimately, the Raptors outrebounded the Heat 51-26 with Johnson grabbing 18 of those 51 boards.
Johnson has emerged this season as somewhat of a team leader. He has been credited as one of the players that has helped all three of the team's rookies on and of the court and has -- with his effort on a nightly basis -- quietly been one of, if not the, steadiest player on the roster.
"He's been a warrior for us the entire year," Dwane Casey said about Johnson prior to tip off on Sunday afternoon. "And really with Andrea going down, he's really our only true big. You know, Aaron Gray gives a backup but as far as starting big Amir's been there for us all year."
So much of what Johnson does on the floor is effort based, however the way he has grown both as a leader and around the basket on the offensive end of the floor has been impressive to see.
"He's learned so much from Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and that group in Detroit when he came in as a rookie," Casey said. "And that's why it's so important when you have rookies [and] they have those type of vets, those hard-nosed vets to learn from that can instill those type of good habits."
When you consider the way he has played this season, particularly in a starting role, it sort of begs the question: should Johnson be the starting power forward for the Raptors come next season?
Johnson is averaging 13 points, 10 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 35.5 minutes per game as a starter this season. He is also ninth in the NBA in field goal percentage, shooting 56 per cent from the floor.
Johnson's per 36-minute stats suggest that he would be better as a starter. According to NBA.com, Johnson was averaging 12.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes as a reserve versus 13.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 24 starts. The difference is slight, but it's a difference none-the-less.
There is an argument to be made that he is potentially more valuable to this team off of the bench, given the way he can energize a second unit. But, that argument obviously depends on whom the Raptors front office would be able to bring in to start and thus cannot really be discussed at this point.
Another factor to consider is the chemistry of that starting unit. With the way it is currently comprised, the Raptors have at least two, but probably three, players that need to shoot the ball to be effective. Because of that fact, it is tough to imagine a player that fits into that starting role along side Lowry, DeRozan and Gay, as well as Johnson.
Johnson's none-stop effort creates extra opportunities for others on the offensive end, which is desperately needed because of the shooting percentages of those aforementioned players.
This is something that was probably not in the realm of discussing heading into the season, but with the current dynamic of the team and the way Amir Johnson has played, there is a distinct possibility that he will, and should be, the starting power forward for the Toronto Raptors next season.
In the final stretch of the season, Johnson is making his case for that starting spot. The fact remains though, that regardless of whether he starts or not, or for how many minutes he plays, you will see a 100 percent effort out of him every night. That effort, combined with his limited-but-improving skillset, makes him a valuable asset for this organization.