TORONTO - Fresh off one of his most impressive outings of the season, DeMar DeRozan sat by his locker and spoke about carrying his suddenly injury-ridden team while a small piece of gauze soaked up the blood on the hand he used to carry them.
There's some irony there, somewhere.
DeRozan needed "four or five" stitches to close a gash in the webbing of his left hand following Wednesday's surprising 107-103 win over the Houston Rockets.
"I didn't even notice," he said. It happened late in the fourth quarter as he tried to rip the ball away from Omer Asik. "I looked down and my whole hand was soaked."
"It wouldn't stop bleeding. But it's cool."
Next to Terrence Ross, the Raptors' healthiest starter might be the guy with the bloody mitt.
They had been fortunate to avoid the injury bug for most of the season but, as they say, when it rains, it pours. Suddenly, it's hit them like a monsoon.
Missing Kyle Lowry for the first time this season, out with soreness in his left knee, Toronto lost another indispensable cog when Amir Johnson was removed three minutes into Wednesday's game, having tweaked a lingering right ankle ailment.
Just a few minutes later the Raptors fell behind by 12 points. With eight games left in their feel-good, Cinderella season the sky was falling, or so we thought.
Fact is, this wouldn't be the first time they've been written off, left for dead. They haven't followed the script to this point, so why would they start now?
"Guys stepped up," Dwane Casey said.
With Patrick Patterson leading the charge in his second game back from an elbow injury, the second unit immediately captured momentum. John Salmons played his best basketball in months while Nando De Colo and Tyler Hansbrough both gave Toronto a lift with their energy off the bench. Greivis Vasquez, starting in place of the injured Lowry, filled in admirably at the point, recording eight assists without committing a turnover in a season-high 40 minutes of action.
But no one was quite as impressive as DeRozan. The all-star guard faced all the additional defensive attention you would expect without Lowry in the lineup but after a 12-minute adjustment period he put the team on his shoulders and got to work.
"I had to pick up the slack with [Lowry] out," said DeRozan, making just one of his five shots in the first quarter. "I haven't really played without Kyle, he's played every game. It was an adjustment for me tonight but I figured it out there after the first quarter."
DeRozan scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in the second quarter, connecting on all six of his attempts in the frame, including a 32-foot bank shot to end the half. Rising to the occasion, DeRozan was at his best when his team needed him most; the mark of a true all-star.
The Raptors have two players that fit that description. With DeRozan sidelined for a couple games in late February, Lowry led Toronto to a pair of victories, scoring over 30 points in each contest. Now it was his turn to carry the load.
"They've been doing it the whole year," Vasquez said of the team's star backcourt. "Both [of them]. It's not hidden that they're our leaders. We go as they go and everybody understands that. This is why we have a healthy locker room. We're not fighting egos. We know what's going on. Those two guys are going to score, those two guys are going to make winning plays for us and we've just got to feed off their energy. Whenever those guys go down we've got their back, that's what this team is all about."
Lowry originally sustained the injury colliding with LeBron James in Monday's loss to the Heat. Although there was no structural damage to his knee, it was still swollen on Wednesday and the team's medical staff decided it was best to hold him out, much to the dismay of Lowry, one would imagine.
"If it were up to him he would go one leg," Casey joked before the game. "But you don't want to risk his future health for one game."
Even in his absence, Lowry's tendencies seemed to rub off on his teammates. DeRozan took a rare charge. Vasquez tried to do the same, though he was called for a blocking foul.
"I know he was laughing," Vasquez said of Lowry, who leads the league in drawing charges. "He knows I don't take charges."
The good news for the Raptors is that neither Lowry's knee injury or Johnson's bum ankle appears too serious. Both players will benefit from some much-needed rest during Thursday's off day and hope to be ready for Friday's home tilt with the Pacers, Toronto's final game against a winning opponent this season.
"We've been very lucky not to have had some major injuries, knock on wood, throughout the year," Casey said. "The little injury bug has hit us a little bit. The schedule's not going to stop. We've got to keep going. Next man up."
Casey reaches milestone
With the victory, Casey notched his 100th win at the helm of the Raptors, becoming the third coach in team history to reach that plateau, joining Sam Mitchell and Lenny Wilkens.
Asked about the accomplishment after the game, the Raptors' third-year bench boss shifted the focus to his players, as expected.
"All I know is it's [win] number 43 for us this year," he said. "It's not about [me]. It's about the team, it's about the organization, it's about the players that have been here the three years and the process that we've gone through."
"To start where we did and kind of build, and we're still building, is a tribute to the young guys and the players that have been through here."
The Raptors will finish the year with a 16-14 record against Western Conference teams, their first season above .500 versus the West since 1999-00.
"Ever since I was in New Orleans I wanted to start my whole career," said Vasquez, who made his second start as a Raptor after doing so in all 18 games with the Kings this season and all 78 he appeared in with New Orleans last year. "But when I came here I really humbled myself and understood that it's about winning more than about putting up numbers. I can go out there and play 36 minutes and put up crazy numbers but what about the playoffs? What about making winning plays?"
"So I'm going to be ready, man. I love this team and I'm willing to do whatever it takes."