It’s been five months since the Toronto Raptors lost a double-overtime affair to the Rockets in Houston. In those five months the Raptors traded their highest-paid player, gained a legitimate bench, started figuring things out and clinched the playoffs. Basically, that team that lost to the Rockets in November doesn’t exist anymore.
On Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, Toronto showed Houston how much has happened since their last meeting, collecting a 107-103 victory despite playing without Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson.
DeMar DeRozan knew his team needed him to step up against the Rockets. He poured in 29 points in a game-high 40 minutes. It was a lot different than that November loss where DeRozan and the Raptors couldn’t buy a bucket.
“It was terrible,” he said of the last meeting against the Rockets. “Honestly, I said earlier it felt like we hadn’t even played Houston this year because it’s been so long and we had a totally different team then.”
DeRozan spoke to the media with his left hand bandaged, blood still seeping through the gauze, after receiving “four or five” stitches to close a wound sustained while fouling Omer Asik. Playing through his own aches and pains, DeRozan was proud of the effort put forth by Greivis Vasquez, Nando De Colo and Tyler Hansbough in the absence of Lowry and Johnson.
“It was big, man,” DeRozan said. “I knew Amir was banged up. He was telling me about it before [the game]. He tried to give it a go and he couldn’t go. Everybody has to pick it up. Luckily we got Pat [Patterson] back in the nick of time. He played extended minutes. It definitely helped us out a lot.”
Vasquez started in Lowry’s place and finished with 15 points and eight assists in 40 minutes of play. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said Vasquez’s experience as a starting point guard in New Orleans and Sacramento helped him be able to slide into a starting role for the Raptors against Houston. Vasquez chose to praise his fellow reserves for staying ready.
“I feel like we’ve already proven – not myself, I’m talking about in general – we have a team,” Vasquez said. “This is not two guys, three guys. We have 15 guys on the roster. It’s a complete team effort, night in and night out…We’re always ready. Any of us. That’s the business of the NBA but at the same time we want those guys back. We want Kyle back. We want Amir back. We need those guys.”
While Toronto collected its 43rd victory of the season, it wasn’t a walk in the park to seal it. Despite leading by as many as 20 points in the third quarter, Houston cut the Toronto lead to 10 to start the fourth. The Rockets would get within one point, but never lead the rest of the way.
Patrick Patterson wasn’t surprised to see DeRozan step up in Lowry’s absence. He also wasn’t surprised when Lowry picked up the slack earlier in the season when DeRozan was out with an ankle sprain.
“They’re all-stars, they’re leaders, the backbone of this team,” Patterson said. “Whenever Kyle’s not playing, that allows DeMar to get more shots, more opportunities and he capitalized on that tonight. Whenever DeMar’s not playing, Kyle does the same thing. When they’re both out there, it makes it a lot easier for all of us. When they’re out, it causes everybody to raise their game to another level.”
Trying to lock up the Atlantic Division title, the Raptors locker room recognizes the importance of each game and opponent, regardless of who is or isn’t in uniform. For the first time in a long time, these games in April matter for something beyond pride.
“Everybody understands what’s at hand,” DeRozan said. “When you get the chance to go out there, you’ve got to perform. Everybody knows that, and everybody has stepped their game up.”
While Vasquez enjoyed getting extended burn, he was quick to say the team wants Lowry and Johnson back as soon as possible. In the meantime, however long it takes, he’s up for the task.
“I’m going to be ready, man,” Vasquez said. “I love this team and I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”