There was no sign of the dreaded mask throughout the Toronto Raptors pregame warm-up as the reluctant Hedo Turkoglu wanted to postpone the agony for as long as he could.
Finally, just before the opening tip of Toronto's game against the Sacramento Kings yesterday afternoon, a trainer handed the Raptors forward the clear, plastic shield designed to protect a fractured orbital bone under his right eye.
As Turkoglu grabbed the mask that has tormented him over the past couple of days, teammate Antoine Wright let loose with a loud, mocking laugh and Turkoglu could only chuckle as he strapped it in place.
After that, the rest of the Raptors played like masked avengers, as well, locking up a stubborn opponent with yet another ferocious defensive effort in the fourth quarter to emerge with a 115-104 decision at the Air Canada Centre.
The win was another example of Toronto's ability to close out games with near flawless precision, a trait that by and large was absent during the early portion of the NBA season when the team was struggling.
"I think we believe, this is a group that believes," Toronto coach Jay Triano said about the Raptors' late-game confidence. "Throughout the game sometimes you might wonder, but down the stretch I just think there's a real comfort level and we're able to close out."
With the victory, the Raptors (28-23) won for the seventh time in their past eight games. They are 13-1 at the ACC since Dec. 13 and show no signs of letting up.
As for the Kings, they keep going the other direction.
The loss was their sixth in a row and 13th in their past 14, dropping their record to 16-34.
Turkoglu was playing for the first time in three games after taking an elbow in the face during a game against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 31.
The blow broke his orbital bone and the Raptors received medical advice that Turkoglu could return only if he agreed to wear a mask to protect against further damage.
At first, Turkoglu wanted no part of the mask, claiming it was cumbersome and uncomfortable and he insisted last Friday that he would not wear it.
But saner heads prevailed and yesterday the Raptors' big off-season acquisition bowed to the team's wishes and agreed to don the face apparel.
"You guys really believed I wasn't going to wear that?" Turkoglu chided reporters afterward in the Raptors locker room.
Turkoglu displayed plenty of jump in his step, a trait that has been frustratingly absent earlier this season, finishing with 16 points, five assists and three rebounds.
DeMar DeRozan also returned to the lineup after missing five in a row recovering from a sprained right ankle and was inserted back into the starting line alongside Turkoglu.
With the Kings stubbornly refusing to fold, the Raptors turned to Chris Bosh to once again pull the team up by the bootstraps.
After the Kings shot in front 91-84 early in the fourth quarter, Bosh fought his way for an offensive rebound and then muscled the ball up and in for a basket while getting jolted.
Bosh sank the free throw, cutting the Kings' lead to 91-90.
Later on, with Toronto leading 102-97, Bosh got the ball in the paint and immediately attracted the interest of three Sacramento defenders.
Bosh alertly found Wright all alone in the corner and fed him the ball.
Wright made the Kings pay for their defensive over-zealousness, draining a three-point shot that increased Toronto's lead to eight points with a little more than four minutes left. The Kings were just about spent.
The Raptors outscored Sacramento 31-17 over the final quarter, holding the Kings to just six field goals.
Bosh, the Raptors all-star, scored 12 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter, while also adding 11 rebounds and five assists.
Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, who returned to the lineup after missing one game with a sore ankle, said he believes this is the best that Bosh has consistently played in his career. Bosh would agree.
"I just feel good," said Bosh, who is averaging 24.4 points and 11.5 rebounds a game this season. "Everything feels great. My body feels good, I feel that the team is playing better.
"I said this season coming in I want to be the best forward in the league and I was going to have to be consistent and try to play every game. So far it's been pretty good." NOTES While the Toronto Raptors welcomed DeMar DeRozan, Hedo Turkoglu and Jose Calderon back to the lineup yesterday for the game against the Sacramento Kings, all having recovered from various bumps and bruises, guard Marco Belinelli was a late scratch with a sore ankle. … Chris Bosh led the Raptors with 36 points and 11 rebounds, his 37th double-double of the season. … The crack Raptors PR department dug deep into the archives for this note, pointing out that the game yesterday was the seventh time the Raptors have played on Super Bowl Sunday. The Raptors are 3-4 in these games. … The Raptors next game is Wednesday in Philadelphia against the 76ers. After that, because of the NBA all-star game in Dallas, the Raptors won't play again until Feb. 17 at home against the Memphis Grizzlies.
NEXT Wednesday, at Philadelphia 76ers, 7 p.m. EST.
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