TORONTO (CP) – Late in the third quarter Friday night, some angry jostling between John Salmons and Paul George quickly turned into a shoving match. The dust-up brought the cheering crowd at Air Canada Centre to its feet and earned both players matching technical fouls.
But even more, said Salmons, it said everything about this Toronto Raptors team. They’re not afraid of anyone.
Terrence Ross led the way with 24 points as the short-handed Raptors slayed another significant foe, defeating the Indiana Pacers 102-94.
“We’re not going to back down from anybody, we’re not going to quit, we’re going to be there, we’re going to fight,” Salmons said. “Our leader (Kyle Lowry) hasn’t been playing the last two games, but we’re still fighting. … We’re definitely not going to back down, we’re going to continue to fight.”
Jonas Valanciunas added 22 points and nine rebounds, while DeMar DeRozan scored 20 points and doled out nine assists for the Raptors (44-32), who claimed their fifth win in six starts despite missing starters Lowry and Amir Johnson.
“We feel like we can beat anybody when we step out there on the court,” said DeRozan. “They’re a top team in the east, and that’s a team that we’re fighting to be in their position. Tonight was a big game at this time of the season.”
Greivis Vasquez and Nando De Colo had 10 points apiece, while Patrick Patterson, who started in place of Johnson in only his third game since missing 11 with an elbow injury, had seven boards.
Paul George had 26 points to top the Pacers (53-24), while David West added 21.
“This is a playoff team,” George said of Toronto. “Down the stretch they just got a lot of bounces that created second shots for them. If you give a playoff team another look or an opportunity they are going to knock you down.”
There was a definite post-season vibe to the Eastern Conference battle between two teams that could potentially meet in the second round of the playoffs.
The Pacers had led the East all season until a recent slide saw them fall below the Miami Heat on percentage points. The playoff-bound Raptors are third in the conference.
“We’re a scrappy team, a scrappy grind-it-out team, so if one player goes down, we have other players that can come in, help us off the bench, give us that same spark,” Ross said. “That’s how we’ve been winning games.”
It was a see-saw battle for the first half before the Raptors cobbled together an 11-point lead in the third quarter, but it was short-lived as Indiana outscored Toronto 22-11 to send the game into the fourth tied 75-75.
The Pacers went on a quick 7-0 run midway through the quarter to take a three-point lead, but the resilient Raptors responded with a run of their own, and when Valanciunas grabbed his own rebound and finished with a lovely hook shot, it put Toronto up 96-94 with three minutes to play.
Valanciunas would score the next basket to make it a four-point lead, and the Raptors held fast on the defensive end the rest of the way, to the delight of the fans at Air Canada Centre, who were on their feet for the final few minutes. When DeRozan stepped to the line to calmly drain two free throws with 13 seconds left, the crowd chanted “M-V-P!”
It was the second straight game without Lowry, who has a bruised kneecap, and Johnson – although Johnson did play three minutes in Wednesday’s 107-103 win over Houston before leaving the game.
Dressed smartly in a charcoal suit, Lowry could have been mistaken for one of the coaches and he hollered at teammates and gave instructions from the bench.
“I’d rather see Kyle in uniform than in street clothes and coaching. I told Kyle this all the time, that when he becomes a coach, I cannot wait to come watch his teams play,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, laughing. “I’m going to be that heckler in the stands ‘Boo coach!'”
DeRozan added dryly: “(The coaching) was a little bit worse than he does when he’s in the game with you, because he doesn’t stop talking.”
The Raptors have six games to go in their quest for the Atlantic Division title, and their battle for a favourable opponent in the post-season. They’re also on pace for their best regular-season record ever. Their most wins in a season is 47, set in 2000-01 and 2006-07.
The good news: Indiana was the Raptors’ last opponent with a plus-.500 record. And of their remaining opponents, they play Milwaukee – the league’s worst team – twice, and Philadelphia (second worst) once.
“(The division title) is important, (but) it’s not worth jeopardizing someone’s health,” Casey said. “We’ve got players who are nicked up, banged up, we’ve got to make sure they’re healthy and we can’t run them into the ground at the sake of trying to win now.”
The Pacers have been struggling, losing three straight and five of six before a win over Detroit on Wednesday.
Still, Casey wasn’t about to take anything away from the Raptors’ win.
“It’s a win. It’s a W. Whatever the deal is (with the Pacers), they’ve won 53 games, that’s the way I look at it,” Casey said. “It’s a quality win.”
Ross shot 4-for-4 for 10 points in an opening quarter that saw 10 lead changes and neither team lead by more than four. The Pacers took a 28-27 advantage into the second.
The back-and-forth battle continued into the second before the Raptors took control with a 15-5 run, capped by a Valanciunas layup, to send Toronto into the dressing room with a 54-46 halftime lead.
A three-point play by Valanciunas gave the Raptors their biggest lead of the game – 11 points – midway through the third, but Indiana buckled down on defence and it was all tied up with 12 minutes to play.
NOTES: The Raptors are at Milwaukee on Saturday then get a much-needed three-day break before hosting Philadelphia on Wednesday. … Hip-hop artist and Raptors global ambassador Drake had a courtside seat.