Aaron Gray has never been a star in his five-year NBA career.
But as the Toronto Raptors were putting an end to a four-game losing skid with a 103-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday the crowd was chanting “MVP, MVP” in appreciation of the way Gray played.
“It is what it is, it was fun, it was exciting,” Gray said with a grin.
The crowd cheered him when he left the court for the final time with a double-double — 12 points and 12 rebounds — in nearly 30 minutes of play. Gray reached season highs in all three categories.
Those who were cheering Gray might also have noticed that he was setting good screens to help DeMar DeRozan lead Toronto (10-23) with 23 points and free up reserve Leandro Barbosa to score 17.
The combination of Gray's screens, Jose Calderon's 15 assists and an improved defensive effort helped the Raptors finish a seven-game home stand at 2-5. Calderon also added six points.
Greg Monroe led the Pistons (11-24) with his own double-double, scoring 30 points and pulling down 14 rebounds.
Gray is getting playing time to add some size up front in the absence of injured forward Andrea Bargnani.
He can't put up points as well as the team's leading scorer, but he can give others good looks at the basket by setting hard screens.
“It's just being physical and not being afraid of contact,” said Gray who played for Chicago and New Orleans before joining Toronto this year. “Obviously I'm not the quickest guy, the fastest or the guy who jumps the highest. But I definitely am not afraid to hit somebody and I just get in somebody's way.
“It really makes me happy to get guys open.”
Head coach Dwane Casey liked the way Gray took up space and grabbed eight of his rebounds on the defensive boards but he mostly appreciated the way he set screens.
“The most important thing that Aaron does is that he does a great job of screening,” Casey said. “I don't know if people noticed that but he did a great job of getting Leandro and DeMar open.”
DeRozan also did a better job of going to the basket, giving some balance between that and hitting the jump shot.
“Harping on it, working on it,” Casey said. “That's been part of his regimen after practice and before practice, attacking the basket. But I was more impressed with his defence which took a backward step (in last Friday's loss to Charlotte).”
It was the final game for both teams before the NBA all-star game break.
“We definitely needed that. I hope it carries over into the second half of the season,” said DeRozan. “Detroit has been playing extremely well so it was a good test for us.”
The Pistons — who have lost two in a row — also got 16 points from Brandon Knight, 14 from Tayshaun Prince and 12 from Jason Maxiell.
After taking a 74-60 lead into the fourth quarter, Toronto stretched its lead to 23 points with 8:08 to play in the game after Barbosa hit a three-pointer and Davis followed with two on a fade-away shot.
Detroit then went on a 13-point run to cut the lead to 89-79 after Knight made a layup with 5:37 to play.
The Pistons pared the lead to nine points but with 1:10 to play Calderon hit a free throw to make it 98-88. It was a nine-point lead again when James Johnson hit one of two free throws for a 99-89 lead with 52.1 seconds to play.
Toronto led 53-45 going into the second half and stretched its lead to 14 points after the third quarter as Calderon added four assists in the quarter to bring his total to 13.
DeRozan led all scorers at the half with 16 points while Prince led Detroit with 12. Although Calderon did not score in the first half, he was distributing the ball well and had nine assists in the opening two quarters.
James Johnson scored 12 for Toronto in the first half and Maxiell had eight for the Pistons.
DeRozan scored 12 points and Calderon had no points but six assists as the Raptors had a 28-24 lead after the first quarter. Maxiell led the Pistons with eight first-quarter points.
Notes: Attendance at Air Canada Centre was 17,125. ... The Raptors were again without Bargnani (strained left calf) and Linas Kleiza (sore left ankle) who was a game-time decision. ... The Pistons were without Charlie Villanueva (sore right ankle) and Will Bynum (personal reasons). ... Casey said before the game that teams have been asking about the possibility of obtaining Calderon in a trade. ... Jonas Jerebko fouled out for the Pistons in the fourth quarter.