Last night, I said that if the Raptors were still in this game by halftime, it would be considered an accomplishment. I also said that I wasn’t exactly a fan of the James Johnson deal. Johnson and the Raptors made a fool of me on Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, and I assure you, I’m more than ok with it.
Johnson was inserted into the starting lineup for his Raptors debut, which coincidentally came against the team that gave up on him, the Chicago Bulls. Johnson seemed to spark the Raptors early on, as he grabbed some rebounds and blocked a couple of shots. Andrea Bargnani got off to another quick start, and the Raptors, overall, were hanging tough.
But the Bulls received a spark of their own in the return of Joakim Noah after his lengthy layoff, and Noah responded with seven rebounds in his first seven minutes of action, leading the Bulls to a four-point lead after one quarter.
The second quarter was very much a game of runs, as the Raptors briefly took the lead, only to see the Bulls jolt ahead by eight as Carlos Boozer asserted his will in the post. But again, the Raptors responded to close out the half, and went into the break down just three, 58-55.
While most of the 18 105 in attendance at the ACC likely assumed that the Bulls would take over in the second half, it was the Raptors who came out of the break looking like the superior team. The Raptors put together one of their most impressive quarters of the season in the third frame, outscoring the Bulls 30-23, jumping out to a nine-point lead, and actually playing some solid team defence.
DeMar DeRozan got the crowd into it with a couple of big jams and started to shoulder some of the scoring load with Bargnani, as the Raptors looked primed for a big upset.
You had to know that the 38-win Bulls and their MVP candidate wouldn’t go away quietly though, and Derrick Rose put on quite the show in the fourth quarter. Within a couple of minutes, the Bulls had actually regained the lead, and Rose, who had a quiet night up to that point, started feeling it.
Impressively, and surprisingly, the Raptors bent, but never broke against a quality opponent. They got a few defensive stops that stunned even their home crowd, got some clutch buckets from Bargnani and put the ball in DeRozan’s hands down the stretch. In the final five minutes, Rose and DeRozan exchanged baskets and free throw attempts, and it was the Raptors who pulled ahead by a basket.
With 16 seconds remaining, Amir Johnson, who went a perfect 8-for-8 from the field, sealed the upset with a dagger of a layup.
Aside from Jerryd Bayless, who struggled through an ugly night, every Raptor contributed to this win. Jose Calderon piled up 17 assists, Bargnani, DeRozan and Amir Johnson combined for 65 points, Leandro Barbosa went 6-of-8 from the floor, Sonny Weems and Ed Davis gave the team quality minutes, and even Alexis Ajinca was noticeable in his eight minutes of action.
Back to James Johnson. I’m sure it helped that his Raptors debut came against the team he wanted to prove something to, and we can’t judge him based on one night. But you had to enjoy watching his hustle, and his well-rounded game, as the second-year forward finished with nine points, five rebounds and three blocks in 26 minutes. If Johnson can bring that versatility and fight on a consistent basis, he will quickly become a fan favourite in Toronto.
Whether you are solely thinking of the draft and the future, or still looking for some salvation this season, you would have to agree that this was a great team win, in front of a lively crowd, for the young Raptors.
Raptors Player of the Game: Andrea Bargnani – 42 Min, 24 Pts, 7-19 FG, 0-3 3Pt, 10-11 FT, 8 Reb, 4 Ast, 1 Stl
Bulls Player of the Game: Derrick Rose – 38 Min, 32 Pts, 8-22 FG, 2-6 3Pt, 14-16 FT, 1 Reb, 10 Ast, 1 Stl
Goat of the Game: Jerryd Bayless – 8 Min, 0 Pts, 0-1 FG, 1 Ast, 3 TO, -10