TORONTO - When Patrick Patterson learned he would be making his first start as a member of the Raptors just prior to Monday night's game he wasn't exactly caught off guard by the news.
With the first unit struggling of late and Amir Johnson - one of the team's iron men - hobbling on an injured right ankle, Patterson knew he could get the nod in a challenging matchup against one of the league's up and coming players at his position.
Although it likely wasn't an easy sell, Dwane Casey and the coaching staff made the decision to rest Johnson, who had not missed a game due to injury in nearly two years, opening the door for his backup.
"I started in Houston so it's not new," said Patterson, downplaying his role in Toronto's 108-101 home win over the Pelicans after scoring a season-best 22 points. "It's just all about making sure I have a positive role and I know my role on the team… making sure I'm a significant part of our team's success."
Since coming over in the seven-player trade from Sacramento in early December, Patterson has seen his role increase steadily, earning the trust of his coach and becoming the Raptors' most reliable reserve. After Johnson was ruled out, Casey expressed concern about disrupting the chemistry of his second unit by removing a key cog in Patterson, however the forward's recent play made the decision an easy one.
"I thought the matchup with (Anthony) Davis was a good one for him," Casey said of Patterson, who has scored in double figures 13 times over his last 20 games, averaging 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds, shooting 53 per cent from the field in under 24 minutes per contest during that stretch. "(Patterson) was able to stretch the defence and give us some offensive punch."
Patterson gave the Raptors a lift where they needed it most. Toronto had been outscored in the opening quarter of the last four games, all on the road, before returning home Monday and getting off to a rare but crucial quick start against Davis and the Pelicans. Patterson - along with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan - was one of three Raptors to score seven points in the first frame, knocking down both of his shots and helping his team take a 31-20 lead into the second period.
That's where Patterson's presence was missed, as Toronto's bench came in and squandered a 15-point advantage. Led by reserve guard Tyreke Evans, New Orleans ripped off a 26-11 run to end the half and would go into the break knotted up with Toronto at 49 points apiece.
"For whatever reason we are losing leads with our second unit, what it's doing is putting a lot of pressure on our starters and putting them in big minute situations," said Casey with both DeRozan and Lowry hovering around 40 minutes on Monday. "I think they just have to get their rhythm back. Taking (Patterson) off the second unit hurts them a bit, but still we have to get a rhythm with that second unit so we can rest our starters."
Heavy mileage has taken its toll on Johnson. The Raptors' forward turned his ankle in a win over the Magic late last month - the most recent in a series of ankle injuries - and, to character, had played and started in all five games since. He could have done the same Monday if necessary, Casey indicated before the game, but with the all-star break around the corner and his team poised to make a playoff run over the next couple months, Johnson finally got some much-needed rest.
"It's tough to replace a guy like Amir," DeRozan said of Johnson, who had not missed a game to injury since Mar. 5, 2012 (he was suspended for one game last year and sat out the previous season finale). "Everybody has to step up and try to do a little more (without him). Everybody understands their role and once they [saw] Amir [was] out, [they had] to step up and hold down the fort until he gets back."
"We're deep," said Lowry, coming off his best game since before the road trip, scoring 19 points to go along with 12 assists and seven boards, five of them offensive. "That's how we play, that's how we roll. 15 deep."
Patterson started six games with the Kings earlier this season and has made 54 starts during his four year career, most of them as a member of the Rockets.
With Patterson stepping into the first unit, Tyler Hansbrough - who has fallen out of favour since returning from an ankle injury last month - took advantage of the opportunity he was given off the bench, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds in 14 minutes.
"Tyler and Patrick both carried us tonight," Casey said. "I thought they were huge in their minutes."
"Tyler came in and was a pro. He brings physicality to the game that we need."
Patterson and Hansbrough shared the assignment of neutralizing Davis, the Pelicans second-year forward, who has been a revelation in the Western Conference this season. Davis scored just two points, hitting one of his six shots in his first appearance at the Air Canada Centre exactly a year ago Monday but he's come a long way since then. The first-time all-star is one of five players averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds and the only one doing so while shooting over 50 per cent from the field. He's also on pace to become just the fifth player since 1973 to lead the NBA in blocks in his first or second season.
"Anthony Davis is one of the most skilled big guys in the league," Casey said before the game, comparing him to a young Kevin Garnett.
Davis was glued to the bench in foul trouble late in the third as the Raptors made their run and finished the game with 19 points and seven rebounds while Evans, 24 hours after being bench for disciplinary reasons, had 23 points and 10 assists off the bench for New Orleans.