Raps barely get by Celtics

Raptors power forward Reggie Evans (left) celebrates a score with teammate Jose Calderon against...

Raptors power forward Reggie Evans (left) celebrates a score with teammate Jose Calderon against the Celtics at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on November 21, 2010. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:52 PM ET

TORONTO - In one of those moments Amir Johnson could only dream of until this season, he stepped up.

In one of those game-defining sequences that determine an outcome, fate was placed in Johnson’s hands.

As likely as Sunday’s 102-101 win over the Boston Celtics was, even more unlikely was the sight of Johnson being asked to win a game.

This isn’t the second coming of Magic Johnson, it’s Amir Johnson, a defensively sound frontcourt player who can guard both centres in certain matchups and power forwards.

Now in his second season as a Raptor, Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance in scoring on put-backs, getting points in transition, defending and rebounding.

That is, when he isn’t picking up silly fouls or getting his minutes restricted because of foul issues.

Getting better

Offensively, he isn’t a guy who will torch opponents with his face-up game, but he’s getting better and more comfortable in knocking down shots.

And there stepped Johnson to the charity stripe after he retrieved a miss by Leandro Barbosa, his team trailing 101-100 with 2.7 ticks left.

“We swag was definitely up at the end,’’ he would begin following Toronto’s win, its third in a row.

“Your what?’’ chimed in teammate Sonny Weems at nearby stall.

“My swag,’’ Johnson would add. “When I got fouled, I knew I was going to get them.”

A day after their five-player trade, the Raptors showed a lot of character in beating a character team in the Celtics, which played minus Rajon Rondo (hamstring).

Whether the game’s ending would have been different with Rondo breaking defenders or recording steals, it’s of little consequence to the Raptors.

This was an afternoon of riveting basketball, of clutch shots, of a team that continues to show encouraging signs.

Above all else, it was an opportunity for Johnson, the last player to go directly from high school to the NBA, to come of age.

This kid has so much potential and works so hard that it’s hard to tell what the future holds for Johnson, who was handsomely rewarded by the Raptors this past off-season.

The biggest issue surrounding Johnson is his penchant for getting into foul trouble, which he neatly avoided against the Celtics.

At this stage of his development, his defence is way ahead of his offence, but Johnson’s ability to step to the line under those circumstances and drain them with absolutely no doubt speaks to his work in the practice gym.

A lot of the credit rests with assistant Alex English, who took Johnson under his wing when Johnson and Weems were acquired last off-season in a deal with Milwaukee.

“I owe it all to him,’’ Johnson said of English, who was as prolific a scorer the NBA has ever seen. “After each practice before we leave the gym, we’ll shoot 50, almost 100 free throws.”

Confidence, form wise, you name it and English has nurtured Johnson to the point where he’s now an automatic when he steps to the line.

He’s so sure of his ability to knock down his fouls shots that Johnson implored the crowd in that late-game scenario.

“I was comfortable,’’ Johnson said. “I was showing them we were going to win this game. The only thing going through my mind was that I was going to make these throws and we were going to win the game.”

At no time as a pro has Johnson been in a position to win a game, a feeling he thoroughly enjoyed in Sunday’s giddy aftermath.

The Raptors still had to play defence on Boston’s final possession, when the Celtics put the ball in Paul Pierce’s hands.

Weems would contest Pierce’s shot, but it hit iron.

“I didn’t mind it,’’ Celtics head coach Doc Rivers of Pierce’s heave. “That’s a good shot for us. Paul likes going right and stepping away. I don’t think we could have got a better shot in that time frame.”

What Amir Johnson did was give the Raptors a shot in the arm in a moment he won’t soon forget.

frank.zicarelli@sunmedia.ca


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