One for the road

FRANK ZICARELLI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

Rasho Nesterovic is a throw-back hoopster, an old-school player who is content to take up space in the paint, set screens and knock down the occasional open jumper.

A man of few words who, in many ways, is the antithesis of his Slovenian teammate Primoz Brezec, Nesterovic never complains about minutes or the amount of touches he gets.

Yet, it was the Raptors' big man who stepped up huge in yesterday's matinee against the inexperienced Seattle SuperSonics, elevating his game at a time when the team suddenly was staring at disaster.

With Nesterovic cast in the most unlikeliest roles as a facilitator, the Raptors were able to ride his inspired play en route to a much-needed 114-106 win as Toronto gets set to play a gruelling five-game western trip beginning tomorrow night in L.A. against the Lakers.

"We put in a little set for him,'' head coach Sam Mitchell said of Nesterovic. "It wasn't necessarily for him to score, but to create some things and Rasho is smart enough to pick and choose when to try to score."

When the Raptors took control of the game in a fateful third quarter, it was Nesterovic who had the ball in his hands, surveying the floor and making the right decisions.

In 12 minutes, Nesterovic posted five assists in a period that saw the Raptors outscore Seattle 35-21.

For the game, Nesterovic tied his career high by recording a team-high seven assists. He added a season-high 17 points in a game that the Raptors simply had to have given the daunting task that awaits.

"This is one of the hardest trips of the season,'' Nesterovic, who was inserted into the starting lineup following Chris Bosh's knee injury. "We play against teams that are on top in the West.

"The first thing is to stay healthy. If we play focused and stay aggressive, things will go well."

Things weren't going so well for the Raptors for most of the opening half against Seattle, who seemingly made shots from every spot on the floor.

Turnovers, though, kept Seattle from fully taking control.

When the second half began, the Raptors would emerge as the superior side with Nesterovic serving as the catalyst.

"Rasho is a pro,'' said Mitchell, who embodied professionalism during his playing career.

"There were nights early in the season when he did not play, but he would go upstairs after the game to get his workout in and he never complains.

"He is always ready to play and that is something young players need to learn from."

Nesterovic's teammates took notice, taking their cue from a seasoned veteran whose deadpan humour is hard to match.

"He played well,'' Jose Calderon said. "He has been doing a great job since Bosh has been out and even the whole season.

"He does the little things for us. He's really important and he knows how to play basketball. It's easy with him -- just give him the ball in the post and he can make assists."

Naturally, Nesterovic deflected all the accolades.

The key, he felt, was the way the Raptors reacted once the third quarter began.

"We were really not aggressive at the beginning of the game,'' Nesterovic said. "They were much more aggressive and much more focused than we were.

"We talked about it at halftime and we just came out and said if we want to win, we have to do what we normally do. We have to be aggressive and focused."


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