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Lewenberg: Vasquez's revenge game fuels Raptors comeback

Josh Lewenberg, TSN 1050
3/20/2014 1:46:40 AM
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NEW ORLEANS - Greivis Vasquez, now an integral member of the Raptors' second unit, has celebrated wins over each of his three former teams in the last two weeks but Wednesday's victory over the Pelicans brought an even wider smile to the jovial point guard's face.

He played a big part in Friday's upset win over Memphis - the team that drafted him - a week after defeating the Kings, the team that traded him Toronto.

However, this one meant a little more, though it took him a couple minutes to admit it.

"I just want to win," Vasquez said, initially downplaying his return to New Orleans after the Raptors overcame an abysmal start to knock off the undermanned Pelicans 107-100.

Sandwiched between his brief time in Memphis and Sacramento, Vasquez spent two seasons playing for the New Orleans franchise, formally known as the Hornets. There he enjoyed his best moments, individually, of his career.

"This is a very special place for me because they gave me the key, they labelled me a starting point guard, they gave me a chance to showcase my game," said Vasquez, who finished second in most improved voting with the Hornets last season, averaging a career-highs in points (13.9) and assists (9.0) before he was traded to Sacramento this past summer.

"I was really angry when they traded me," he admitted. "I know it's part of the business so that makes it a little sour when you come back but you always want to beat your former team."

With the game in the balance down the stretch, Vasquez looked and played like a scorned man.

The Raptors' backup point guard, like the rest of his new team, got off to an unexpectedly slow start against a Pelicans club missing its best player, all-star forward and Vasquez's former running mate Anthony Davis.

When Vasquez entered the game late in the first quarter, Toronto was already down by seven. That deficit would balloon to 13 a few minutes later, as the Pelicans had their way with the shorthanded Raptors in the paint, getting what they want, when and however they wanted it.

The Raptors spent most of the second half clawing back, unable to get over the final hurdle until Vasquez vaulted them over it. With two minutes remaining on the clock and the score knotted up at 94 - Toronto had led for a total of 51 seconds in the game at that point - the former Hornet put the Raptors on top with one of his patented floaters.

After misfiring on a three from the corner - one he thought he had made - moments later, Vasquez followed his shot, grabbed the rebound - Toronto's 22nd offensive board of the night, a season-best - and covered the lay-up, also getting fouled on the play.

After completing the three-point sequence, the Raptors found themselves up by five in a game they badly needed, having dropped their last two. They would not relinquish that lead.

"I was blessed enough to be out there at the end of the game," said Vasquez, who scored nine of his 14 points in the fourth quarter. "I've been wishing I could get out there at the end of these games and (Coach) gave me an opportunity."

"I had a rough first half and then the second half I was on a mission," he continued. "I like close games. I'm not afraid. I will never be afraid. I am the type of player who would risk everything. That's how I got the (starting job) here in New Orleans. They saw me playing in Memphis against San Antonio and OKC in my rookie year and they thought I was a starting guard."

The Pelicans missed just three shots in the opening quarter, dropping 32 points on the winded Raptors - playing in the second game of a back-to-back, having lost Tuesday in Atlanta - without Davis, their leading scorer.

Shooting over 75 per cent until the latter half of the second quarter, New Orleans torched the visitors on dribble drives in the paint.

"I didn't recognize the team in the first quarter," Dwane Casey said. "I told them they were playing like they were in a rec league in the summer time (but) we picked it up."

The game began to turn midway through that frame, as the Raptors closed the half on a 23-10 run, hitting nine of their final 10 shots.

Despite shooting 36-per-cent in the second half, the Raptors clawed and scraped their way back into the game. DeMar DeRozan carried them offensively, scoring 16 of his game-high 31 points in the second half and the team out-rebounded New Orleans 31-18, including a 14-2 advantage on the offensive boards. Amir Johnson - playing on a sore ankle, again - grabbed eight of his nine rebounds in the second half, Tyler Hansbrough - starting in place of the injured Jonas Valanciunas - pulled down eight of his season-high 13. Simply put, they wanted it more.

"This game was about mental toughness, physical toughness more so than skill," said Casey. "No matter who you're playing you have to bring that each and every night and I thought our guys did."

Undermanned frontcourt

The Raptors were without two of their top three bigs in Valanciunas, who missed his first game of the season with a lower back sprain and Patrick Patterson, still out with an elbow injury.

Valanciunas sustained the injury turning to set a screen in the third quarter of Tuesday's loss to the Hawks and was unable to suit up in New Orleans.

Although his back is still tight, the Raptors' centre underwent treatment before the game and plans to do the same during Thursday's off day, hoping to return on Friday at home to the Thunder.

De Colo's quiet impact

Without attempting a single shot in the first half, only taking one in the game, Nando De Colo helped ignite the Raptors and change the game with his energy, effort and decision making.

Logging 14 minutes, the most he's played since he was acquired from San Antonio at the trade deadline, De Colo was credited with sparking his new team's second-quarter run that cut their deficit from 14 to one going into intermission.

"Oh man, he was unbelievable," Kyle Lowry said of De Colo, who went scoreless but added two rebounds and three assists. "You can't forget a guy like that. That's what I always say, we're 15 strong. Nando hasn't played that much but tonight he really changed the game, just moving, speed, defence, just his overall effort and knowledge of the game."

Nearing a milestone on the road

With the victory, the Raptors picked up their 18th road win of the season, most since the 2001-02 campaign and are getting closer to the franchise record of 20 set the year prior.

Toronto has seven road games to go and can finish at or above .500 away from home for the first time in team history if they can win at least three of them. They'll face only one winning team on the road - the Heat - the rest of the way.

Wednesday's visit to New Orleans also marked the Raptors' final road game against Western Conference opponents, finishing the season 8-7 in those contests.

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