If ever a team needed a win – maybe even just a close, morale-boosting loss – it was the Toronto Raptors.
The NBA team entered Friday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns after back-to-back losses on the road earlier in the week to extend its losing streak to six.
And with the unappetizing prospect of a five-game trip on the immediate horizon for the Raptors, a good showing against the Suns at the Air Canada Centre was viewed as essential to soothe a somewhat fragile psyche.
“You’re daw-gone right we do,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said when asked if the team needed something good to come out of the Suns’ game. “But I don’t think Phoenix would agree with that.”
The Raptors got what they were looking for, putting together a solid fourth quarter and hanging on for a 101-97 victory.
Toronto carted an 80-76 lead into the final quarter of a choppy contest played before 18,246 spectators, and it all came down to the frenzied last couple of minutes.
With Toronto clinging to a 98-97 lead, Phoenix forward Luis Scola was hounded into a miss by some strong defence from an unlikely source -- Andrea Bargnani.
The 7-footer, who missed Toronto’s last game with a sore ankle, has often been criticized for his soft defensive play, but he could not be faulted here.
Staying on top of Scola as he tried to force his way to the basket, Bargnani eventually forced the Suns forward to throw up a tough shot that missed, and the rebound was scooped up by Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who was fouled.
Lowry sank just one of his two free throws to give the Suns another opportunity, but a driving layup for the tie by Shannon Brown was off the mark with just three seconds left, and the victory was Toronto’s.
“I thought Andrea struggled offensively,” Casey said of his power forward, who only contributed four points and two rebounds in a little over 27 minutes of play.
“At the end his defence got us two big stops and knocked down a couple free throws. There’s other way you can impact a game other than putting the ball in the hole.”
DeMar DeRozan enjoyed a strong game for Toronto, with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Amir Johnson was huge off the bench with 16 points and six boards.
For the Raptors, who lost their previous two games by an average of 18.5 points, Friday’s tilt was viewed as a winning proposition if there ever was one for a team that had won just three of its first 16 games.
Heading in, Casey said he sensed a little bit of self doubt was beginning to creep into his player’s minds.
“When you lose six in a row, whatever it is, everything becomes big,” Casey said. “The way somebody chews chewing gum becomes big and everything bothers you.”
Casey said he stressed to the team that the game plan is sound.
“It’s the execution,” Casey said. “When we do that we’re a solid team.”
Injuries haven’t helped, prompting the Raptors to sign nine-year NBA free-agent veteran Mickael Pietrus to a contract on Friday.
With Landry Fields and Alan Anderson still hurting and unavailable to play, it is hoped that Pietrus will be able to lend some stability at the small forward spot.
The 30-year-old swingman hails from France and he believes the Raptors will be a good fit.
“Obviously I’m French and it’s great for me that they speak French here, too,” he said.
Pietrus logged a surprising 32 minutes of court time and finished with six points, including a big three late in the fourth quarter that helped keep the Raptors rolling.
Toronto suffered another typical slow start, shooting just 35 per cent (7 of 20) from the field in the first quarter as the Suns surged to a 25-19 lead.
Rookie Terrence Ross helped get Toronto rolling in the second quarter, draining a nice three-pointer in traffic.
A nifty baseline reverse by Jose Calderon and another long shot from Pietrus for three and the Raptors had knotted the score 36-36.
Kyle Lowry hit a buzzer-beating three that cut the Phoenix lead to 52-51 by the half.
DeRozan grabbed a loose ball off the glass and quickly hoisted it back up from eight feet for a bucket at the buzzer that was ruled good after a review.
DeRozan was fouled on the play and he sank the free throw that provided Toronto with a 80-76 cushion heading into the fourth.
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