In the final minutes of Friday's desultory loss to the Atlanta Hawks that saw the Toronto Raptors starters booed off the floor, Pops Mensah-Bonsu played his brains out.
He subbed in when the game was well over and grabbed two offensive rebounds, got fouled trying to dunk the ball with five seconds left, blocked a dunk, and generally squeezed about as much juice as there possibly was to be had from two minutes of garbage time.
In part because of that effort, Mensah-Bonsu was able to earn some rare early floor time in the Raptors' convincing 101-88 win over the Houston Rockets at the Air Canada Centre yesterday. He was part of an energized second unit that seized control of the game in the second quarter and set the tone for what might have been the Raptors' best game since the opening night of the season when they upset the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I take any time I have on the court seriously," said the high-flying journeyman who has yet to earn a long-term contract in the NBA. "It's my time to show what I can do and I'm hoping that what I did in those two minutes kind of raised some eyebrows and made people think 'let's see what he can do with six, seven, eight or nine minutes,' like I had today."
It would be wrong to suggest Mensah-Bonsu was the critical component in the Raptors win - it was one of those team victories with many hands pulling on the same rope. Their marquee players were effective with Chris Bosh leading the way with 27 points and Hedo Turkoglu adding a season-high 23 points to go with six rebounds and five assists. Jarrett Jack continued his strong play as the starting point guard, finishing with 17 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. But Mensah-Bonsu did have a pair of spectacular blocks that juiced the crowd of 17,111 and otherwise served as a reminder to a sometimes hustle-challenged group that there are points available for effort.
Raptors head coach Jay Triano said moving Mensah-Bonsu up in the rotation was an effort to take advantage of the possibility that he'd be motivated playing against the Rockets, who cut him in November, but also to reward him for taking advantage of the playing time he did get.
"We rank our guys every single possession, every play of every game, whether we're up 20 or down 20," Triano said. "That's what we tell guys at the end of the bench … that's how we move guys up and how we keep guys honest."
With Jose Calderon out for a prolonged period with a strained hip muscle Triano needed to shuffle his rotation regardless. He opted to inject some hustle and athleticism into a group often short in both areas.
Sonny Weems came off the bench for a season-high 29 minutes at the wing position and responded with 11 points, four rebounds, a pair of assists and two blocked shots as he ate up all the minutes normally given to Antoine Wright and some of Marco Belinelli's, too.
"Take advantage," said Weems of his mindset when getting an early dose of minutes. "Take advantage, especially on the defensive end. That's going to get me the most minutes, especially on the defensive end."
The Raptors win was much needed as it improved their record to 11-15, halted their losing skid at two and gave them a bit of lift as they head to Florida for games against Miami and Orlando this week.
The only downside was that it was an indictment of so many of their losses. The same group that has so often coasted in the face of adversity came out energized and determined, raising the question why not more and more often?
The irony is that it came against the Rockets (13-10) who have developed a trademark style that features something close to all-out effort all the time. It's the reason they've been able to maintain a spot in the Western Conference playoff picture even though Yao Ming (foot) and Tracy McGrady (knee) - their two franchise players - have been hurt the entire season.
"For us to succeed we have to do that, we can't be outworked," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman. "We have so many guys trying to prove themselves and they play hard every night, they want to show the league what they can do."
For once the Raptors beat them at their own game.
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