Even without two of their most important players, the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors dug in and held their ground in the NBA's Eastern Conference standings with a 107-103 win over the Houston Rockets.
First Kyle Lowry couldn't start the game because of a knee injury suffered Monday in the loss to the Miami Heat. Then Amir Johnson left Wednesday's game in the first quarter with a sore right ankle. But the depleted Toronto squad had five players in double digits as they delivered a win.
Powered by 29 points from DeMar DeRozan and 15 apiece from Jonas Valanciunas and Greivis Vasquez, the Raptors maintained their grip on the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with the victory. If the Raptors want to keep that position – which would include home court advantage in the first round – they must not take their collective foot off the gas in the final two weeks of the regular season, as the Chicago Bulls sit right on their heels in the standings.
"With Kyle not being about to go, then Amir, guys stepped up," said head coach Dwane Casey, who recorded his 100 win on the job Wednesday. "It's a good win, and big picture it's great. Every win is great right now for what we're trying to do, especially with Kyle and Amir out. Hopefully it gives our guys some confidence."
The Raptors have been trying to get some rest for their starters in the final two weeks of the regular season, and some experience for their bench players, but this wasn't the way the team wanted to get those minutes as they fight down the stretch to win the Atlantic Division.
Johnson tweaked a sore ankle Wednesday that has been bothering him for a while. Lowry was injured on a knee-to-knee collision with LeBron James Monday, and while x-rays showed no structural damage to the knee, he was ruled out Wednesday night. Vasquez stepped in and played 40 minutes – his most yet as a Raptor. Nando De Colo also played 12 minutes at the point, impressing Casey with his speed and efficient ball-handling while adding four points.
"We've already proven we have a team, this is not two or three guys it's a complete team effort night in and night out," said Vasquez, who also had eight assists, a steal and no turnovers. "When I came here, I humbled myself and understood it's about winning more than putting up numbers. What about the playoffs? About making winning plays? Playing behind Kyle Lowry this year has been a great learning experience for me. That guy makes winning plays – charges, steals, boxing out. I still consider myself a young guy who wants to learn."
The Raptors trailed early in the game. They were routinely allowing Rockets big men Chandler Parsons and Donatas Motiejunas to dominate in the low post, while Omer Asik was hogging all the rebounds and James Harden seemed to be effortlessly hitting mid-range jumpers and 3-point shots.
But DeRozan put Toronto on his back in the second quarter. He poured in 15 points in that frame alone – including a long 3-pointer at the buzzer – to help the Raptors take a 55-50 lead into half-time.
Then Toronto opened the second half with a 17-9 run and led by as much as 18 at one point during the third quarter. But it didn't remain that lopsided.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Raptors let the Rockets pull back within a basket of the lead, making for a tense final five minutes of play, especially the remaining four seconds when Houston was a three-point basket from tying. A timely free-throw shot by Vasquez stifled Houston's final attempts at the victory.
Terrence Ross contributed 13 for Toronto, while John Salmons added 12.
That made seven straight wins for the Raptors against the Rockets at the Air Canada Centre. It was Toronto's final game of the regular season against a Western Conference opponent, as they split the season series with Houston.
Houston's Jeremy Lin, who had 31 points when two teams last met in Houston, was held to 16 this time. Harden led the way for the Rockets with 26, while Parsons added 20.
The Raptors were handed a gift of sorts, as the Rockets, battling to secure the No. 3 seed in the West, were without star Dwight Howard, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury.
The Raptors looked like a very different squad from the one that lost 110-104 in Houston back in November, a month before Rudy Gay was traded away, and the team began its turnaround and charged toward a playoff berth.
Toronto, which improves to 43-32, has seven regular-season games to play – four at home – before the playoffs begin on April 19. If the post-season opened now, the Raptors would face the No. 6-seeded Washington Wizards. But other likely first-round opponents still include the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets.
The Raptors have a day off on Thursday and hope Johnson and Lowry will get much-needed recovery time. Their status for Friday remains uncertain.
"We have to prepare like they won't be here, we have to," said Casey. "We don't know, so we have to make our plans around guys we know will be here. That's the NBA…the schedule is not going to stop, so next man up."