Raptors reserves could be great
By RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency
|Amir Johnson goes up for a basket against the New York Knicks on Friday night in Montreal. Johnson missed only one shot and grabbed five rebounds to go along with his 14 points, two steals and two blocks and is part of what should be a strong bench for the Raptors. (MARTIN CHEVALIER/QMI AGENCY)
TORONTO - While Toronto’s starting five don’t stack up favourably with those of the league’s elite squads, the reserves project to be one of the better backup groups in the NBA.
There might not be a big name besides Jose Calderon, who is widely expected to end up backing up Kyle Lowry, but that doesn’t mean the group won’t be effective.
Though Ed Davis was held out and Terrence Ross played sparingly for precautionary reasons in Friday’s 107-88 win over the Knicks, the bench was still excellent for the Raptors, tallying 47 points to New York’s 25.
Amir Johnson missed only one shot and grabbed five rebounds to go along with his 14 points, two steals and two blocks. John Lucas also only missed one shot and had six points in each of the third and fourth quarters, while Calderon scored eight points, Linas Kleiza added five and Alan Anderson was steady at both ends.
The unit gives Dwane Casey some firepower to call on and Johnson, Davis, Anderson and Dominic McGuire are capable of playing excellent defence and doing the job on the glass, while Ross is expected to provide that as well once he adapts to the NBA.
Calderon was once the best backup point guard in the league and will be close to that level again, while Lucas arguably is the best third-stringer going and will make a case for considerable minutes with his Vinnie (The Microwave) Johnson-esque scoring bonanzas.
This is the deepest the Raptors have been in years and the players expect that to be an advantage over the course of a long season.
“It’s a big boost because, you know, not a lot of teams can go to their bench and look for a lift,” Anderson said after the game on Friday.
“From the point guard to the wings to the big men, we’ve got scorers all around the board … It’s good that the starters can come out and whether hot or cold (the bench can) get us going.”
Anderson believes if the Raptors buy into Casey’s defensive requests, the team will surprise many opponents.
Lucas turned some heads last year in Chicago and already has made believers out of Casey and DeMar DeRozan.
“It’s already tough to guard us as it is (and) we’ve got a guy like John Lucas to come and do the things he can do is definitely amazing,” DeRozan said.
After sitting out the first half against the Knicks, Lucas checked in late in the third quarter and promptly scored six points in his four minutes as the Raptors stretched the lead to double-digits for the first time and he added another six a quarter later.
The way the Raptors have been starting games throughout the pre-season — badly, Casey’s main pet peeve at the moment — the play of the bench has been crucial.
“We can’t find our way back through the whole game, we have to jump on teams from the beginning and we’ve just got to get better on that,” DeRozan said.
If not, the starters might start ceding minutes to their capable backups.
It’s definitely not the worst problem for Casey to have. Battles for minutes leads to better effort and outings out of players fighting to stay on the court, which in the end, should lead to more victories.
Star power might trump depth in the playoffs, but in the regular season, a capable bench comes in quite handy indeed.
BIG V'S SALVAGE EFFORT
As a rookie centre adapting to the NBA game, Jonas Valanciunas is going to have nights like Friday’s game against New York (two points, zero rebounds, three fouls at halftime). Actually he’ll have evenings that are a lot worse, considering he managed to salvage the outing by hauling down six of his game-high 10 rebounds in a stellar fourth quarter.
Head coach Dwane Casey and Raptors teammates DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry lauded Valanciunas for persevering and having an impact in the end.
“Valanciunas played smart, I was really impressed with how he played with five fouls,” Casey said. “They tried to attack him but he did a good job of holding his ground against one of the top centres (Tyson Chandler) in the league.”
Valanciunas was rather non-plussed about his good finish though.
“I have to do that,” he said, emphasizing the have. “It was really bad start for me, really bad three quarters, So I have to give something in the fourth quarter. (But) the night was good because we won.”
Lowry said Valanciunas “held his own” and was a big help because he was able to still play defence and be effective despite being close to fouling out.
Echoed DeRozan: “He was going hard for five fouls too. That was big.”
It was a big test passed for a big man who will face a season filled with similar challenges.