For a Raptors team that had mostly slumped into the new year (six game win streak notwithstanding), February was to be the true test. Eleven games, nine against teams above .500, an emotional litmus test all-around. How would Toronto respond?
This home stand was supposed to be where the struggle began. After dropping games to the Bucks and Nets, the Raptors reeled into a game against the Clippers and somehow turned it into a blowout. They then followed that performance by going toe-to-toe with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs... and winning 87-82.
Yeah. I know.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we'll start with the hero of the game: James Johnson. To keep things interesting, coach Dwane Casey decided to start Johnson against the Spurs - along with his usual lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.
"It was for defensive purposes, to match up with Kawhi Leonard, to give us a physical presence with him," said Casey after the game. And physical is the word to use. Johnson is known for his unremarkable shooting ability; its long been the knock on his game (along with his apparent tough-to-coach personality). But his toughness has never been in question. Johnson shot 8-for-10 in the game, for 20 points, and of the shots he missed, both were jumpers.
Still, after a series of runs - first the Raps went up, then the Spurs went up, then the Raps got going, and so on - the ball found Johnson in the corner with the game on the line. It was a corner three, the shot Johnson isn't really supposed to take. But this is folk hero James Johnson we're talking about, so of course, he took it and made it. "I just took the shot I normally take. I just took it with confidence," said Johnson afterwards.
The legend grows, and JJ wasn't even done. He also grabbed a huge offensive board in the dying seconds to secure the win. After an absurdly out of character play for the Spurs' Tim Duncan - his inbound pass went from one side of the court to the other without touching a single player - the Raptors hung on. It was all as unlikely as it sounds.
"It was against a great team," said DeRozan. "They are the champions and you have to give them credit." DeRozan, along with Lowry, had off-nights shooting (4-for-14 and 5-for-15, respectively), but each helped in their way; Lowry with seven assists, DeRozan with 12 free throw attempts. Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas made his own bunch of memories by grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking Duncan (JV had four blocks in the game). And, not to be outdone, Amir Johnson quietly had himself a 15 point, 8 rebound game which was capped off by a brilliant down the middle drive and dunk late in the fourth. Bench play was short this time around, with only Patrick Patterson having much of an effect (and playing 27 minutes), but it felt like a true team effort.
"We are trying to get where they are and where they've been," said Lowry. "It's a great test for us."
Beating a Spurs team that shoots 33 percent (including 25 percent from three) maybe involves a bit of luck. But hand it to these Raptors, so far they've aced the test.
What did you guys think of the game?