Lewenberg: Casey makes lineup change, calls out bench

Josh Lewenberg
12/1/2013 7:55:10 PM
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TORONTO - Amir Johnson has never been one to sulk over playing time.

Whether starting or coming off the bench, Johnson has always accepted his role in stride, part of what's made him the Raptors' unsung hero for the better part of the last three seasons.

His body language spoke louder than words on Sunday, both before and after his team's 112-98 loss to the Nuggets, their third straight defeat at home.

An hour before tip-off a subdued Johnson sat alone in front of his locker. Playing a racing game on his phone - with the volume turned up - he knew what everyone else would find out 50 minutes later.

For the first time since Mar. 23, a span of 27 games, Johnson would come off the bench with Tyler Hansbrough replacing him in the Raptors' starting five.

Dwane Casey had hinted a lineup change could be on its way after practice the day prior but the Raptors' coach kept his cards close to his vest during his pre-game availability, with the Nuggets withholding the status of starter Kenneth Faried.

Following a couple slow starts in back-to-back defeats at home, the shakeup was not a surprise.

"We've been talking about it, a few days back," Johnson said, despondent after the game. A man of few words.

While Johnson was held scoreless in 14 uninspiring minutes as a reserve - an uncharacteristic minus-16 on the afternoon - the change seemed to spark his team out of the gate. Along with Jonas Valanciunas, Hansbrough set the tone for the Raptors, who took an early 15-point lead thanks in large part to Toronto's energy and physical work on the boards. However, that lead shrunk in a hurry as both teams went to their second units.

The Nuggets - a team assembled, at least in part by Raptors' GM Masai Ujiri - dominated the final 36 minutes with their superior depth, exploiting the deficiencies in Toronto's shallow roster.

"Masai did too good of a job of putting that group together," Casey joked before the game. The Nuggets and their new coach Brian Shaw went 10 players deep, six of them scoring in double figures, including four off the bench.

"Our bench has got to give us something," Casey maintained after Denver's subs scored 72 points, an opponent record against the Raptors. "Our (starters) can't play for 48 (minutes), so we've got to get production from the bench."

"The guys coming in have got to develop a toughness, a resilience of getting stops and it starts on the defensive end. That's where our problems started in the second half. They shot well but we didn't make them feel us and that's the difference."

As a team, the Nuggets shot 65 per cent in the second half and their bench went 17-for-23 from the field.

Johnson - now a member of the Raptors' second unit that managed just 16 points on Sunday - has not been himself this season, to his own admission.

"No, I've been on and off," he responded, asked if his early-season play has met his standards.

"I mean that's why we made the change in the lineup," Casey said in agreement. "Just to give us some energy, give (Johnson) a chance to recharge a little bit, refresh a little bit, refocus a little bit."

Even after Sunday's game, Johnson is a plus-20 this season - the team's second best mark - shooting 54 per cent from the field, tops on the Raptors. Still, his effort and consequently his impact has been inconsistent following a career season last year. At times Casey has questioned the forward's focus.

"Everybody's been through some rough times," said Rudy Gay, who had a team-high 23 points on 10-of-23 shooting in the loss. "I've been through it… and he's going through it now."

"Everybody's going to go through it at some point in their career and this is the time he's been going through it. But I have all confidence in Amir. He's going to be great, he's going to be the same Amir we know he can be."

Frustration boiling over

The Raptors have now dropped three straight and five of their last six games at home, prompting a sensible question; is frustration beginning to get the best of them?

"It should hurt," Casey insisted. "But the teams that we played against, if you looked at the schedule before the season started, how many of them would we have been favoured (in)? But that's no excuse because we put ourselves in a position (to win) in each of these games and even in this one in the first half. I don't see frustration."

DeMar DeRozan didn't mince words, expressing his frustration after the loss.

"Me personally, I'm frustrated period," he exclaimed after scoring 17 points in defeat. "Just losing, I mean I hate it, I hate it with a passion."

"I mean we're right there. We're the ones doing it. Nobody's making us miss our coverages or nothing like that. It's on us. We show it in spurts, we've just got to be more consistent with it."

Rare third-quarter touches for Valanciunas

Coming into Sunday's contest, Jonas Valanciunas had scored 71 points on 57 shots in first quarters this season, tallying just 60 points on 58 shots in the other three quarters combined.

The sophomore was utilized more consistently against a smaller Denver team and he responded with one of his better performances of the campaign.

"I thought he had a (good) matchup with those guys so we made it a focal point of getting him the ball in the paint," Casey said of Valanciunas, who had a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes of action. "He did an excellent job of getting to where he wanted to go."

Valanciunas had four points on seven shots in the first frame, a quarter the Raptors won, also taking seven shots and scoring eight in the third, their next best quarter. As Toronto got steamrolled in the fourth, Valanciunas attempted just one field goal in over nine minutes.

If the Raptors hope to diversify their offence, which has largely been centred on Gay and DeRozan, they must find ways to incorporate their centre more consistently, a task that's easier said than done given the team's personnel and the sophomore's continued development on both ends of the floor.

Up next

After winning one of four games during their season-long home stand, the Raptors travel west next week. Their first stop is in Oakland to face the Golden State Warriors.

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