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Raptors find unlikely heroes Add to ...

Marcus Banks, Sonny Weems and Amir Johnson didn't figure heavily in the Toronto Raptors' plans for the season when the team gathered for training camp in October.

Banks was on the roster only because there were no takers for his millstone of a contract, a five-year, $21-million (U.S.) deal he signed in 2006 and had never delivered on.

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Weems was a throw-in in a deal that brought him with Johnson from the Milwaukee Bucks. He'd spent most of his rookie season in the NBA Development League and wasn't high on anyone's radar.

Johnson was projected to live on the fringes of the Raptors' big-man rotation, trying to find minutes that Reggie Evans and Rasho Nesterovic weren't using.

But in yesterday afternoon's 98-92 win over the New Orleans Hornets at the Air Canada Centre, they played essential roles, proving that in an 82-game season, you can never count anyone out as a potential contributor.

The Raptors' win turned on their ability to contain Chris Paul, the electric point guard for the Hornets (12-14). Before the game, Raptors assistant coach Marc Iavaroni talked about the need to "manage" Paul, who shredded the Denver Nuggets for 30 points and 19 assists last Friday and came into the game yesterday averaging 15.8 assists a game in his seven starts since returning from an ankle sprain.

The Raptors (13-17) did just that, mixing up their defences and holding Paul to 10 points, seven assists and eight rebounds on 3-of-13 shooting in 40 minutes. Paul committed five turnovers.

The Raptors' plan was to limit him to one side of the floor. Among the best to execute the plan was Banks, the nearly forgotten point guard who has been more than serviceable in a backup role behind Jarrett Jack while Jose Calderon (hip) has been hurt.

In one sequence during the third quarter, Paul was so frustrated by the rough treatment he was suffering at the hands of the burly Banks that he lashed out at the referees. At the start of the fourth quarter, Banks made a sloppy turnover in front of the Raptors' bench, but redeemed himself by stealing the ball cleanly from Paul and scoring a jumper over him.

Raptors head coach Jay Triano "told me to try and frustrate the guy," Banks said of Paul.

"Normally he has a 20 [points]and 19 [assists]game. You can't take anything away from him, but we really wanted to win this game. My hat's off to the rest of the team because without them, we couldn't have got the stops we did."

The Raptors also got a lift from a lineup that featured Johnson and Weems as well as rookie wing DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors' most athletic group. Most appreciative was all-star forward Chris Bosh, who seemed to enjoy being surrounded by teammates who could fly to the ball and to the rim.

"It is good to have guys like that who just want to hustle out there and just go hard to the boards," said Bosh, who turned in another strong afternoon, finishing with a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds, though he did commit six turnovers.

Weems wasted little time making his presence felt, lobbing a perfectly timed alley-oop for DeRozan. In the last five minutes of the third quarter, Johnson, Weems and DeRozan sparked the Raptors to a 12-3 run and a seven-point lead.

"When we went to that quick lineup, Amir runs the floor hard, those two guys run and slice to the basket, it gives us great energy," Triano said of the athletic trio.

The Raptors couldn't quite put the Hornets away, however.

Even though Paul was having a rough afternoon, he still made an impact as he either set up his teammates for layups, or put them in position to get fouled or got himself fouled on four possessions in the last three minutes as the Raptors' lead was cut to a basket.

Bosh iced the game by scoring a layup off a missed three-point attempt by Andrea Bargnani, who helped out with a blocked shot on Paul down the stretch

Bosh and Bargnani are supposed to make those plays. But in their efforts to expand the most modest of winning streaks - they've now won two in a row before a home-and-home series against the Detroit Pistons - the Raptors enjoyed some key contributions from some unexpected sources.

 

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