Right here, right now, Tyler Hansbrough knew exactly where he was: his left foot in a bucket of ice water, his right shin wrapped in ice just above the ankle, a hard 14 minutes and 34 seconds behind him. Twelve absolutely crucial points, a game-changing two minutes and six rebounds in the Toronto Raptors penultimate game before the All-Star Break.
Sitting there in the leather recliner in front of his locker after a 108-101 win over the New Orleans Pelicans at the Air Canada Centre, Hansbrough freely admitted that he cannot predict his playing time after the All-Star Break. Or in the playoffs, which the numbers say is a certainty barring a disastrous collapse or a Masai Ujiri whim. “Teams usually push their starters in the playoffs, because you’ve got a little less travel than in the regular season,” Hansbrough said. “But I know from my time with the Indiana Pacers that somebody will get in foul trouble. Or somebody will get hurt. So you just stay focused on the bench. You wait your chance.”
Hansbrough is the flip side of the Raptors spurt to the playoffs; at most a supporting actor in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Draft Lottery” - a Ujiri production, directed by Dwane Casey and starring DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Hansbrough missed six games with a sprained left ankle in and around the trade with the Sacramento Kings that brought in an instant bench of Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons. During that time, the Raptors have gone 20-12 and Patterson and Salmons have become Casey’s go-to guys off the bench while Hayes can play the role of enforcer. Monday night, Patterson was pressed into his first start with the Raptors when Amir Johnson spent the night in civvies, his valiant but futile five-game attempt at playing on a rolled ankle on the Raptors 2-3 Western Conference road trip evidence enough for Casey. Somebody mentioned Hansbrough and Hayes as players who could profit from Johnson’s absence. Casey smiled. "In this league, if you're patient, you'll get opportunity," he said.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Lowry had another clutch performance for the Raptors (19 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds including five offensive boards in just under 39 minutes). DeRozan, who missed all three shots in the second quarter when the Pelicans feasted on the Raptors second unit to turn a 31-20 first-quarter Raptors lead into a 49-49 tie at the half, finished with 22 points, tying Patterson for the team-high. But it was Hansbrough who put his stamp on the game in the fourth quarter.
In a game with 46 fouls, Hansbrough was pressed into duty after Jonas Valanciunas picked up his fifth foul with seven minutes left and the score 87-86. He pump-faked for a lay-up then hustled back and forced Austin Rovers to change his shot, leading to a three-point dagger from Terrence Ross.
Including Wednesday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, their last before the All-Star Break, the Raptors will play 19 of 32 games at home. They have three sets of back to back road games – but no road trip of over two games.
It has been tempting to put a “Yeah, but …” in front of the Raptors success, usually in reference to the overall weakness of the NBA’s Eastern Conference relative to the Western Conference. Yet the Raptors have hardly cherry-picked their way; they went into Monday’s game tied for 11th in strength of schedule, and have had a tougher schedule than any other team in the conference. Time now to put their imprimatur on home court, just like their Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., brethren, the Maple Leafs, have done on home ice. The ACC ain’t what it used to be, not for opposing teams, and even though minutes will be at a premium Casey`s bigs – Valanciunas, Patterson, Hayes and Hansbrough – can expect more opportunities during the hurly-burly of the stretch drive.
"Those minutes were huge," Casey said of Hansbrough's contribution, which included going 4-for-6 from the free-throw line. "I said that Tyler and Patrick both carried us tonight. Tyler came in and was a pro; rebounded, had 12 points. Again, he brings that physicality that we need; he helps us get to the free-throw line."
Make no mistake: the Raptors will need to, in the words of Casey, "out-scrap" more teams as opposed to out-running them. It won't often be pretty; which is right in Tyler Hansbrough`s wheelhouse.