PHOENIX - Eight games was enough.
The return of the Raptors leading scorer Andrea Bargnani and a rare opportunity to be the fresher of the two teams on the floor — the Suns were on a back-to-back while the Raptors have been in Phoenix since Sunday night — did the trick.
The skid is over.
Bargnani hit a season-high for points with 36 in his first game back after missing the past six and the Raptors won a game against Phoenix for the first time in 15 tries.
The 99-96 win was the Raps first against Phoenix since Feb. 10, 2004.
Steve Nash no longer owns Canada’s team.
“Andrea coming back makes things easier for everyone else,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “He opens up the lanes for (Leandro Barbosa) to get in there for layups, James (Johnson) could get in the lane and get on the offensive boards. He’s kind of a hub everyone can play off of.”
The eight-game skid is over and it’s a good thing too because this trip only gets tougher.
From Phoenix, the Raptors head directly to Salt Lake City for a date with the red-hot Utah Jazz and then on to face an equally hot Denver team.
The Raptors needed this one in the worst way and Bargnani’s return helped make it happen.
“Our guys did a good job of fighting from behind,” Casey said. “We could have pitched a tent and called it a day there early in the game but they showed fortitude, they stuck together.”
THE CHANGING LINEUP
Against the Suns it was Aaron Gray in and Amir Johnson out, but circumstances meant little time for either centre in the game. Gray lasted just over six minutes to start the game and wound up with 15.
Johnson had just under 13 minutes.
When the Suns went small, it meant no chance for the Raptors to go with two bigs and that meant moving Bargnani over to centre.
Casey said he was happy with Gray’s work in the third when he set some hard screens but there was very little to judge whether this is going to be a starting five Casey sticks with or not.
There is no question Casey was not pleased with the way Amir loafed in Los Angeles, but there’s equally no question that the Raps are better served with Johnson in the middle, assuming he plays with the kind of energy he is known for.
Either way Casey could not let what Johnson did, or more correctly didn’t do, on Sunday go without some kind of response.
“Whatever we can do to get off to that start we will,” Casey said before Tuesday’s game. “Accountability as a whole is a big part of what we are doing going forward and it has been already but even moreso because if we don’t have the guys coming out with the energy, coming out running the floor — I’m not saying making shots or missing shots, that has nothing to do with it — but not making the hustle plays or running the floor, having a sense of urgency on the defensive end and playing with a physicality on the offensive end, then we have to get somebody in who will do that. That’s the only way you can change things.”
BARGNANI STARTS SLOW
Bargnani began the game as one would expect a guy who had been out of the lineup for almost two weeks. He couldn’t hit a shot. In fact his missed his first four before a 10-foot turnaround jump shot found it’s way all the way down.
He finished the first half going 2-for-8 from the field but got to the line a few times and was a perfect 5-for-5 from there.
Still, not quite Bargnani-esque for this year, but understandable.
Casey warned the return wouldn’t fix everything.
“Getting him back is not a total cure-all,” Casey said. “He’s been out for a couple of weeks with a serious injury so we don’t want to put that kind of pressure on him. But it will be a big plus because he is one of our best shooters and he will give us some spacing.”
Casey was right, for a half, but those first-half struggles were long gone memories by the end of the third quarter where Bargnani poured in 18 points over the 12 minutes including a perfect three-for-three from beyond the arc.
The Raps scored 31 points in the quarter to go with the 31 in the second quarter giving them back-to-back quarters of 30 or more for the first time all season.
Including the fourth quarter in Los Angeles on Sunday that’s three of four with 30 or more.
JAMES FINDS RANGE
James Johnson is in the lineup because he is a very athletic and active defender. He leads the team in both blocks and steals and gets his teammates extra possessions.
But for the second night in the past three games, Johnson was a big contributer in scoring, particularly in the first half when both Bargnani, who would later get it going, and DeMar DeRozan (who never did) were struggling.
Johnson went 5-for-6 in that first half for 12 big points while the guys who normally carry the scoring were struggling.
Johnson wound up with 18 points, five shy of the season high 23 he put up against the Trail Blazers on Friday. If that wasn’t enough he also had 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the year.
His work, and that of Linas Kleiza who also had 10 rebounds, on the boards was key in the second half.