The day did not get off to a good start for Amir Johnson, whose participation in the morning shoot-around for the Toronto Raptors was compromised by allergies and a flu virus he was trying hard to ignore.
The night ended significantly better.
It was a re-energized Johnson who helped lead the charge Monday night with a gritty defensive effort against Kevin Love, one of the NBA’s top power forwards, that helped spur the Raptors to a deserving 97-87 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Air Canada Centre.
“We played hard, I think we really played grimy,” is how Johnson framed the victory. “I don’t think we gave anybody anything, or let them get into their groove.”
So concerned was Toronto rookie coach Dwane Casey about Johnson’s availability for the game that he kept his condition a secret from the media when he met with reporters earlier in the day following the shoot-around.
But there was Johnson, in the starting lineup at centre and making a solid contribution with 19 points and 11 rebounds, not to mention three assists, one steal, and one blocked shot.
It was the work that Johnson exhibited against Love that pleased Casey the most.
Love came into the game leading the NBA in rebounding with an average of 15 a game, while standing fifth overall in scoring with an average of 25.4 points.
While Love hauled in 14 rebounds in the contest he was held to just 13 points and was harassed almost every time he touched the ball, primarily by Johnson.
Love wound up connecting on just three of his 16 field goals – two of them from three-point range.
“My thought was just to play hard against him,” a weary-looking Johnson said as he slouched on his stool in front of his locker after the game, his left ankle resting in a bucket of ice. “I watched a couple of his games, he’s crazy on the glass.
“I just wanted to play aggressive, get him off the boards.”
Johnson’s effort, with a big assist from power forward Andre Bargnani, who finished the game with 31 points and nine rebounds, was enough to halt a Raptors losing streak at two games.
It marked the third time in nine games this year that Bargnani has scored at least 30 points.
“Andrea for me, and I’ve been telling my coaching friends around the league, he’s playing like an all-star,” Casey said of the much maligned former No. 1 draft pick.
While Casey insists his Raptors are still very much a work in progress, the win was uplifting nonetheless coming after two desultory weekend losses to the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers where Toronto showed little interest at both ends of the court.
Monday night the Timberwolves shot just .338 from the floor (27-for-80), a season low.
“We just didn’t want to think about what happened in Philly, what happened against the Nets,” said Toronto guard Jose Calderon, who finished with 14 points and six assists.
“We just had to start over like those games never happened.”
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