NBA

Lewenberg: Sophomores spark Raptors' victory over Cavaliers

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Josh Lewenberg
2/22/2014 12:52:33 AM
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TORONTO - Once he got going, no one could calm Jonas Valanciunas down, despite Kyle Lowry's best efforts.

As Valanciunas was whistled for a rare technical toward the end of the third quarter - a result of waving his hand at an official after being called for a foul - Lowry pulled the Raptors' sophomore aside, corralling him by his jersey and patting him on the back.

"You've got to be smart in certain situations," Lowry told the young centre. "I just tried to say look, you can't waste your money."

"Yeah, he was trying to calm me down," Valanciunas said of the conversation with his point guard, speaking with a mischievous look on his face following the Raptors' 98-91 win over the Cavaliers. "That technical foul cost me, so I feel bad now."

He shouldn't.

The tech will cost Valanciunas a small fraction of his next paycheque but the unbridled emotion he played with in the second half of Friday's game was the driving force of Toronto's rapid turnaround.

Valanciunas, like the rest of his team, got off to an ugly start. The Raptors were fortunate to be down by only five going into the break, scoring just 39 points in the first half and shooting 33 per cent from the field. For the third straight game coming out of the All-Star break, Valanciunas got a quick hook in the first quarter.

The seven-footer has been strangely quiet of late, averaging under six points in four games entering Friday's contest. His minutes have been down, as he's battled growing pains on the defensive end. After being sent to the bench midway through the opening quarter, he sat for around 12 minutes of game time before re-entering.

Somewhere, somehow, someone lit a fire under the sophomore and not only did it spark him, it ignited the whole team.

Valanciunas was a possessed man coming out of the halftime break. He was aggressive on defence, manic on the boards and dominant down low. He ran the floor with a purpose, worked to establish position, then demanded the ball.

As he turned to face up Cleveland's Tyler Zeller midway through the third, he pump faked - not once, but twice - took the contact and drained the jumper. Before completing the three-point play, he pumped his fist in the air and yelled out to the crowd, or the Cavs, or his teammates, or whoever was listening. His face was as red as the logo at centre court. He meant business.

"He's going to have ups and downs but tonight he was intense," Lowry said of Valanciunas, who had 10 points and four rebounds in the third quarter, finishing the game with 18 points and eight boards. "He really kind of carried us with his intensity and his passion and fire tonight."

The 21-year-old's inspired play lifted the Raptors in what turned out to be a game-deciding third quarter. Toronto scored 37 points in the frame - two fewer than its first-half total - and shot 70 per cent, turning a five-point deficit at intermission into an 11-point advantage going into the fourth.

"He's our enforcer in the paint," said Amir Johnson, who returned to the starting lineup Friday after coming off the bench in his two previous outings, nursing an ankle injury. "When he gets going, everybody else plays good and that just gets everybody open shots when he's scoring in the paint."

Johnson also came to life in the second half, the two bigs even hooked up on an alley-oop lob - from Johnson to Valanciunas - late in game. 

"We had to give our bigs a wakeup call," Dwane Casey said. "They turned it around in the second half. We reminded them, there's more to the game than the offensive end."

"You can do a lot of different things other than make shots," he continued, "and I thought the second half, Amir Johnson and JV worked at it and got it done."

Although Valanciunas helped turn the game, the best Raptor on the night - from start to finish - was fellow sophomore Terrence Ross, hands down.

Ross scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 9-for-18, but his most important contribution was on the defensive end, where he went toe-to-toe with All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving.

When the game began, Ross was assigned to check former Raptor Jarrett Jack while Lowry defended Irving. Early in the first quarter, there was a switch and Ross ended up on the Cavs' point guard and leading scorer. It stuck for the rest of the evening, and Ross did not disappoint.

The Raptors' forward used his length and athleticism to frustrate Irving, forcing him to launch tough perimeter jumpers, keeping him out of the paint and holding him to 3-of-16 shooting.

"He can score in a lot of different ways [and] get his teammates involved," Ross said of Irving, who ended up with 17 points and nine assists for Cleveland. "So if you slow him down, you slow the team down."

"He had to chase [Irving] everywhere," Johnson said of Ross. "He chased him off screens, he didn't quit on plays and that's how you have to play a guy like that. [Irving's] so crafty and he's always moving so you just have to keep a body on him and stay in front of him. [Ross] did a great job."

It was Canada Basketball Night at the Air Canada Centre Friday, as local product and first overall pick Anthony Bennett made his NBA debut in Toronto. Bennett, who continues to improve after a slow start to the season, knocked down his first two shots and finished with nine points in 15 minute of action while fellow Canadian Tristan Thompson scored 13 to go along with nine boards.

In snapping Cleveland's six-game winning streak, the Raptors picked up their 30th win of the campaign, doing so in just 55 games. It took them 78 contests to reach the 30-win mark a year ago.

Jonas Valanciunas  (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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