TORONTO - As the Toronto Raptors prepare for Friday's game in Detroit they'll focus on a familiar face who is at the forefront of their scouting reports.
The Raptors will visit The Palace of Auburn Hills looking to avoid what would be a season-high six game losing streak against the Pistons and their former point guard Jose Calderon.
Calderon, who spent seven and a half seasons in Toronto, is set to face his former team for the first time since the Jan. 30 three-team trade before making his return to the Air Canada Centre in a Monday night rematch.
"It'll probably be strange because he's been here his whole career," Amir Johnson admitted just before the team departed for Detroit Thursday afternoon. "So it'll kind of be weird."
Signed as a free agent back in 2005, the Spaniard played 525 games for the Raptors, second most in team history, leading the franchise in assists (3,770), free-throw percentage (.877) and ranking fifth on the club's all-time scoring list (5,235).
A pass-first, team-first leader on and off the floor, Calderon made his mark on the organization, the city, the coaching staff and his teammates during his tenure in Toronto.
"A great teammate," Johnson said of Calderon. "He definitely gave me some buckets. Just a great guy overall."
"He was a great teammate, on the court and off the court," said rookie Terrence Ross, who only had a brief opportunity to share the floor with Calderon before the trade. "He's a guy you can go to, talk to, he's funny, everybody loved him. He's just a great person."
Calderon's absence has left a glaring chasm in the Raptors' offence, which has yet to fully take shape since the franchise-altering deal was consummated eight weeks ago. As Rudy Gay is integrated into the offence -- his isolations taking up a big piece of the pie -- and Kyle Lowry continues to struggle finding his niche as the starting point guard, the team's once-pristine ball movement seems to have become a thing of the past. A stagnant offence, bouts of poor decision making and wavering discipline has plagued the Raptors during a recent stretch, losing 12 of their last 15 games.
Toronto has recorded 19 or fewer assists in 15 of 26 games since the trade, ranked second to last in that category averaging 19.2 dimes during that stretch. Prior to the trade, the Raptors exceeded 20 helpers in 22 of 23 games with Calderon in the starting lineup, averaging 25.1 assists, good for second best in the league at the time.
Calderon was Dwane Casey's security blanket at the point guard position during the coach's first year and a half at the helm. Without the eight-year vet at his disposal, Casey has been forced to adjust on the fly and cede control of his team to younger, less disciplined offensive players.
"Like most coaches and point guards, you don't know him [and] he doesn't know you," Casey said as he reflected back on his first impression of Calderon. "So you're trying to build that trust and that relationship."
"I knew Jose had been a winner," he continued. "He had won world championships. I had seen him play with the national team so I had the respect from the outside looking in."
The Pistons, winners of four straight meetings with the Raptors in Detroit, are an abysmal 6-18 with Calderon in their lineup but the point guard hasn't missed a beat in terms of his famously consistent offensive production and efficiency. He is averaging 11.8 points and 6.7 assists as a member of the Pistons, similar to his statistics from the first half of the season, but his shooting numbers are truly remarkable. Calderon is shooting over 52 per cent from the field and from three-point range while hitting his free throws at a 91 per cent clip.
"He's still Jose," Casey acknowledged. "They're running some of the same sets we ran for him here and when he gets his feet set its money."
Amir Johnson moved gingerly as he exited the Raptors practice court at the ACC on Thursday, one day after sustained a left leg contusion in the 107-88 loss to Atlanta.
Johnson left the game early in the third quarter after colliding with Al Horford and injuring what he described as the side of his knee. He spent the rest of the evening undergoing tests and receiving treatment in the locker room. X-rays were negative. "It's just sore," he told TSN.ca Thursday afternoon, "I'll be fine."
"It was kind of like somebody hit your funny bone but it's on your knee," he described. ""It just went numb, that's when I tried to shake it out and when I went to sit down the pain kind of [sunk] in from there."
Despite a collection of ankle and leg injuries that have plagued him throughout the campaign, the only game Johnson has missed this season was the result of a league-administered suspension. "Not me," he responded emphatically when asked if he'd consider shutting it down for the final 11 games. "Like I said, I don't like sitting out so I'm going to make sure everything's fine [so] I can actually play."
Johnson travelled with the team to Detroit where he will be a game-time decision against the Pistons on Friday.
"You have some players in the league that get a hang nail [and] they're ready to take two weeks off," Casey joked. "Where [as] Amir has a bum ankle, leg now, every part of his body probably hurts and if you're in the NBA long enough throughout the season something hurts on your body. So with Rudy going with the bad back and then also with Amir going with his knee contusion is huge to set that culture and set the tone."