Funny thing happened in the Raptors dressing room, Wednesday night.
The locals had just dropped a hard-fought 90-85 decision to the Indiana Pacers. It was a wonderfully ramshackle affair. Down 11 points with eight minutes left, the Raptors cut the margin to 83-81 before James Johnson leaned a step too far toward the key. His man, Danny Granger, slid out to the corner with just over a minute to play.
James Johnson is freaky athletic. He scoring line looks like something your keyboard barfed up. Against Indiana he brought down eight rebounds, managed six steals, incurred five fouls and still found time to score six points and block two shots.
But none of those things mattered as much as that little halfway lean and the screen that entrapped Johnson. Granger, a six-year veteran easily drained the shot.
None of this should strike you as unusual. Johnson was playing in his 105th career game and his 37th as a starter. That is not a commanding body of work and in some ways, Johnson is the face of the franchise. He is young, he has undeniable talent, he works relentlessly and he isn’t quite there yet.
It’s what happened after that merits some attention.
Johnson was the first player dressed, the first to face the cameras.
My fault, he said.
“Everything was going good except for the last rotation,” Johnson said. “That’s the one that cost us the most. That’s the one I feel like I let my team down.”
Not every player learns from a learning situation but with a condensed schedule that offers scant time for practice and still less for perspective, how well the James Johnsons follow up their words will determine how long it takes the Raptors to evolve into a playoff team.
“I feel like I have to learn from that and never let it happen again,” Johnson said. “At crunch time, we were busting out butts so hard to get back.”
In sports, something goes wrong pretty well all the time. That’s why it’s fun. In every possession there is a twist, a mistake. Someone is a step slow. A loose ball finds a shin instead of the player waiting for it.
There is only one scenario where one play decides a game. That’s a game with one play. The back story, in Johnson’s case a pretty good back story, is as important as it is overlooked.
The back story here isn’t tough to suss out. A terrible defensive team is being rebuilt with most of the same cast. They are being asked to put the grunt work first and Wednesday’s game brought plenty of signs that is happening.
Witness Andrea Bargnani’s enthusiastic effort and a rambling three-point play late in the game with a quorum of Pacers hanging on him. Bargnani finished with 21 points despite two early fouls and while the scoresheet only showed four rebounds, he distributed the ball better than he usually did last year and carded five assists. He was certainly more involved defensively. You live with the downside, in Bargnani’s case a team-high four turnovers.
There was DeMar DeRozan, ineffective over the first three quarters, unstoppable in the fourth. DeRozan was responsible for 16 of the Raptors 30 fourth-quarter points. He finished with 22 and the night left DeRozan feeling breathless.
“I don’t know what a playoff game feels like but if it feels like that it would definitely be fun,” he said.
“We needed a fight like that to show us we have to keep working.”
There was no shortage of work. The Raptors limited Indiana to a 39.5 shooting percentage. Without seven-footer Aaron Gray to throw at Roy Hibbert and David West, they fell just two short of the Pacers’ 41 rebounds.
The overwhelming emphasis on defence kept the Raptors in the game but left them few tools with which to win it.
They struggled to get to the foul line, just 13 trips compared to Indiana’s 22 and banked only seven points from the line, a dozen fewer than Indiana. Nothing about the night was easy.
That fits. It’s not going to be an easy season. It will be easier, though, with perseverance and accountability. Those two elements were much in evidence against Indiana. So too were the inevitable stumbles, like the one that left James Johnson just a yard too far from Danny Granger.
“I can’t fault my team’s effort. They clawed back in, clawed back in,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. He didn’t know it, but a few minutes later his young forward would contradict him.
“It’s not on one guy’s fault. It’s not on one man. It’s on all of us collectively not to have those breakdowns.”