Game No. 24: Raptors 106, Wizards 89

I was very intrigued to see how the Raptors would come out to start this ball game. They had their butts handed to them on back-to-back nights by two greatly superior teams in the Hawks and Celtics, and then had to endure a day of practice on Thursday instead of the customary day off after a back-to-back.

The Raps responded and showed some passion out of the gates against the Wizards. While Toronto still hasn’t won a first quarter in 13 games, they did finish the first half up 10 thanks to some assertive and aggressive offence to go with the return of their solid defence.

Washington cut the lead to just one point midway through the third quarter, but again, Toronto responded with a spirited run to get their first home win in 25 days.

Now here are my thoughts on the game:

1- Welcome back, Amir. Amir Johnson bounced back from an ugly stretch (less than three points and rebounds per game over last nine games) with one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from him. 18 points in efficient fashion to go along with 13 rebounds, three blocks and a couple of assists. Johnson seemed to have that spring in his step again, and it was a most welcomed sight for Raptors fans. A lot of readers and commenters took my Thursday post on Amir as a suggestion that he should be amnestied. My intention was to simply point out that if he didn’t step his game up this season, his contract is as legitimate an amnesty candidate as any other on this roster, in my opinion. As I’ve often pointed out with Amir, performances like what we saw against the Wizards on Friday can be the norm for him if he stays focused and out of foul trouble.

2- That was by far the most aggressive I’ve seen the Raptors play on the offensive end this season. The wasted shot clocks and ill-advised jumpers were replaced with smart movement off the ball and hard drives to the basket. The result, aside from cracking the 100-point barrier for just the second time in regulation this season and the first time at home, was a respectable 45 per cent shooting, an eye-popping 68 points in the paint and 28 free throw attempts. I realize the Raptors won’t be able to put those numbers up against many NBA teams, but if they attack the basket the way they did against the Wizards, they’ll be in a lot more ball games, even without Andrea Bargnani.

3- One negative the aggressive offence brought to light was how poorly the Raptors are shooting free throws the last couple of games. Their 19-of-28 (67.9%) performance from the charity stripe on Friday means the Raps are just 27-of-46 (58%) from the line over their last two games. The Raptors entered Boston as a top-10 team in terms of free throw percentage and are shooting 75 per cent for the season, so let’s hope these two games have been a simple blip on the radar rather than the beginning of a decline.

4- Speaking of blips on the radar, it appears as though DeMar DeRozan’s 27-point performance in New Jersey on Sunday was just that, a blip, rather than the beginning of a climb back to respectability. DeRozan scored just 11 points on four-of-12 shooting on Friday, though in DeMar’s defence, he was once again denied a chance at more free throws by some very questionable non-calls. In three games since his outburst against the Nets, DeRozan has just 28 points on 10-of-33 shooting in 88 minutes of action. During that time, he’s gone to the free throw line just 14 times. On Sunday, he scored 27 points in 41 minutes and went to the line a career-high 16 times. I know DeRozan’s struggles seem to be documented on repeat right now, but at this point, he’s leaving us no choice. DeMar has to get it going for more than one game every few weeks.

5- These two guys may never get into another Thoughts on the Game post, so I wanted to take some time to give Jamaal Magloire and Aaron Gray some love tonight. Aaron got the start in the middle for the Raptors and provided his usual stability on the boards and the defensive end. Magloire came in for a short stint to close out the first quarter and picked up right where Gray had left off, just playing good fundamental big man basketball. The result was that the two combined to grab 12 rebounds in 17 total minutes, with Magloire adding a couple of blocks. They may not have done anything pretty or memorable in their short time on the floor, but make no mistake, Aaron Gray and Jamaal Magloire helped set the tone for the Raptors early on in this game, and the rest of the team carried that same hustle the rest of the way. If these two guys can combine for anywhere from 10-20 minutes of solid play in the middle on any given night, they will be well worth the minimal investment.

6- That aforementioned tone that Gray and Magloire helped set to start the game translated into a truly memorable team performance on the glass for the Raptors. With 61 rebounds, Toronto set a new franchise record for rebounds in a regulation game. Nine different Raptors grabbed at least three rebounds and the Raps out-rebounded the Wizards by a ridiculous margin of 24.

***

It may have been against the lowly Wizards (4-19, 1-10 on the road), but entertaining home wins like this, where the fans get some free pizza, are crucial from time to time to keep everyone’s sanity in this rebuilding season. Even Tank Nation loyalists can’t be that disappointed tonight, since realistically, the Raptors don’t have a chance to finish below the Wizards in the standings unless injuries come into play.

Raptors Player of the Game: Amir Johnson – 27 Min, 18 Pts, 8-13 FG, 0-1 3Pt, 2-2 FT, 13 Reb, 2 Ast, 3 Blk (Jose Calderon’s performance of eight points, 17 assists and eight rebounds should get some consideration here too)

Wizards Player of the Game: Trevor Booker – 32 Min, 13 Pts, 6-11 FG, 1-2 FT, 7 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 Blk (Nick Young and John Wall made too many careless decisions in this one to get the nod)

The Raptors are in Miami to take on the “Heatles” on Sunday afternoon, but stop by RaptorBlog on Saturday if you get a chance. I’ve got a fun post planned as part of Super Bowl weekend.

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