Lewenberg: Shorthanded Raptors steal second straight win

Josh Lewenberg, TSN 1050
4/5/2014 1:46:45 AM
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TORONTO - As Dwane Casey called a timeout late in Friday's victory, one of his team's most impressive of the campaign, an honorary addition to the Raptors' coaching body was the first to race out and rally the troops.

Donning a charcoal blazer on top of his white t-shirt, Kyle Lowry immediately pulled aside his replacement, Greivis Vasquez, as the two point guards calibrated by the bench with less than a minute remaining.

A reluctant spectator for the second straight contest, nursing his bruised knee, Lowry refused to take the night off. Not that anyone truly expected him to.

"He was like our second or third coach," said Jonas Valanciunas.

"He was kind of doing the same thing he does when he's in the game," added Terrence Ross. "Helping us with plays, drawing things up for us, being vocal."

The Raptors would rather have him in uniform, dressed in red and white while leading his team in the trenches instead of on the sidelines, but they have more than held their own in his absence.

For the second time in three days, Toronto - missing both Lowry and forward Amir Johnson - was able to knock off a top-six team, as the team's confidence continues to grow heading into the playoffs.

"With us we feel like we can beat anybody when we step out there on the court, honestly," said DeMar DeRozan, who tallied 20 points and nine assists in his team's inspiring 102-94 win over the Indiana Pacers. "They're [a] top team in the East. We understand tonight was a big win at this time of the season."

The Pacers - a team the Raptors could see in the second round of the playoffs, should they advance - are backing into the postseason. Frank Vogel's club, losers of six straight games on the road and six of eight overall, had occupied the East's top seed for most of the season before surrendering it to Miami last week.

Vulnerable as Indiana may be, the Raptors have split the season series and given that they were without two starters on Friday, their latest victory was of the statement variety.

"If they're looking for themselves, whatever it is, it's a win," Casey said. "Whatever their deal is, they've won 53 games. That's the way I look at it. It's a quality win."

Fresh off a similarly opportunistic win over a Rockets team missing Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, the Raptors displayed characteristics you wouldn't expect from a young, undermanned group. They were resilient, hitting back after the Pacers cut into their 11-point cushion and took a lead of their own late in the game. They were tough, winning the battle on the boards and refusing to back down from Indy's intimidation tactics.

They embodied the seemingly irreplaceable qualities of their fallen comrades, Lowry and Johnson.

Lowry - for better or for worse, in uniform or not - is the engine that drives this ship and even from the bench he couldn't help but to take control.

"It's a little bit worse than what he does when he's in the game with you," DeRozan joked. "He just won't stop talking but hey, we deal with it, it's cool. He shut up a little bit more once we were winning."

"I'd rather have him in uniform than in street clothes and coaching," Casey said, also having some fun at the expense of the vocal Lowry. "I tell Kyle this all the time, that when he becomes a coach I cannot wait to come watch his teams play."

"I'll tell you what, I'mma be that heckler in that stands. 'Boooo, coach'."

The relationship between Casey and Lowry has grown exponentially over the past 18 months. They're both strong-willed, passionate competitors. Whatever rift they may or may not have had last season - when the team was losing and Lowry's minutes were sporadic - appears to be a thing of the past. They understand and respect each other. Winning will do that.

"I mean we have the same goals and that's to win as many games as we can win, make noise in the playoffs and compete our butts off," Casey said before the game. "We're tied together from that standpoint."

The Raptors have navigated through the toughest stretch of their late-season schedule without Lowry and Johnson - out with a lingering ankle ailment - and can now afford to be more cautious with the health of their stars. Toronto's final six regular season games come against sub-.500 competition, beginning with Saturday's contest against the lowly Bucks in Milwaukee.

"The big picture is the most important thing," Casey acknowledged, "keeping guys healthy going forward."

Sophomores stepping up

Facing elite defenders at their positions, the Raptors' duo of second-year starters came up big in the absence of Lowry and Johnson.

Valanciunas, who scored 22 points on 14 shots, anchored Toronto's defence and pulled down crucial rebounds in crunch time while vastly outplaying Pacers' all-star centre Roy Hibbert. Meanwhile, Ross picked up the slack on offence, leading the team with 24 points - including five made threes - against a couple of tough wing defenders in Paul George and Lance Stephenson.

"They came in and played with a lot of confidence, a lot of energy," Casey said of his sophomores.

"They continue to get better and work hard at it every single day," DeRozan added. "They understand they play a key role on this team and us being successful. I credit tonight's game to them because they came up big."

De Colo making an impact

With Vasquez stepping into Lowry's slot as the team's starting point guard, Casey has looked to trade deadline acquisition Nando De Colo off the bench. Even without scoring, the former Spurs guard has been making an impact with his energy and basketball intellect. He logged 23 minutes on Friday - most he's played with the Raptors - and with the increased role came a greater comfort level offensively.

"He knows that he's going to get extended minutes with Kyle out," Casey said of De Colo, who scored 10 points and dished out five assists. "When you're in that situation you play a little more free and a little looser. He's [being] himself and he's done an excellent job."

The stat

DeRozan, who had a team-high nine assists Friday, has now recorded five or more dimes in 24 games this year after doing so 18 times in his first four seasons combined.

The quote

"It should help their confidence," said Casey on the win. "To go against a team like Indiana without our two starters helps us but it's not worth a darn if we don't come out [Saturday] night and have the same focus and energy and effort. We're happy, we're excited about the win. I don't want to poo poo on it but we've got to turn it up and crank it up again tomorrow night.

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