Amir Johnson, who has been nearly invisible in recent weeks while recovering from a sore ankle, made his presence felt during Game 2 of the Toronto Raptors' playoff series with the Brooklyn Nets. Punctuated by a thunderous dunk to help seal the 100-95 victory, Johnson's performance was a big step in the right direction for the Raptors.
In his first games games back after sitting out with an ailing ankle, Johnson hadn't had the same impact on the floor – he had just two points in the first game of the series. But on Tuesday night, Johnson was a big presence from the opening tip-off.
The power forward had five rebounds before the first quarter was through, and he played tough defensively against Nets veteran Paul Pierce, who was a Raptor-killer in Game 1. Johnson was shooting more, putting points on the board too: His put-back jam off a DeMar DeRozan miss in the third quarter was one of the more electrifying moments of Tuesday night's game.
"I thought he gave it to us defensively, I thought his energy level was up and his focus was there, a different focus than he had Saturday," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "He had it tonight. He had the energy and defensive focus we needed, and we'll need it even more so when we're in Brooklyn."
The crowd at the Air Canada Centre reacted in a way that illustrated how much they have missed the athleticism shown for years by the likeable 6-foot-9 Raptor.
While Johnson has been telling the media over the past week that his ankle feels 100-per-cent healed, his play up to Tuesday suggested otherwise.
"It was definitely gratifying," said Johnson. "The first game is the hardest one to get, and we definitely cleaned up. We were the desperate team tonight; it was a definite must win. We came out and took it tonight. We have to stay focused now."
Even coach Casey admitted Johnson hadn't been totally healthy.
A popular Raptors website had even polled its readers earlier this week about whether Johnson ought to remain in the starting lineup.
But his two monster blocks alone showed the power of momentum that this eight-year NBA player brings to the Raptors, one of the players who was in Toronto to see this rebuild begin.
"That was our goal this game to pound them on the glass," said Johnson. "Go to the glass single every time, offensive and defensive."
The Raptors need Johnson badly in this seven-game series with the Nets. The combination of big forwards Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson create a unique blend of size and skill that is difficult to stifle without Johnson providing his aggressive defence.
"It was very emotional," said Johnson, a long-time fan favourite. "We really wanted to show the NBA and the league that we are a good team, and it was definitely emotional…now we have to play like that for the whole series, and it's going to take every ounce, every player, every fan. We need everybody."
Some shakeups the Raptors tried seemed to work with varying success.
After a poor shooting performance in Game 1, DeRozan came out firing in Game 2, and after missing his first three shots, they started to fall. His two back-to-back first-quarter baskets seemed to ignite the Raptors. This from a player who considered returning to the gym Saturday night to tune up his game after being so upset with the first playoff loss.
Terrance Ross also hit his first shot of the night, Valanciunas salvaged a rebound while lying in the paint and kicked it out for a pass to salvage a possession, then swiftly made another hook shot.
Landry Fields, who hadn't played any meaningful minutes for the Raptors since late March, stepped into an effective defensive role Tuesday. He created havoc in the paint and used his length to slow the Nets in meaningful minutes.
On the flip side, point guard Kyle Lowry, who led Toronto with 22 points on Saturday and hasn't scored fewer than 20 in a game since April 9, was a main focus of the Nets' defensive pressure. Brooklyn seemed to collapse on Lowry every time he neared the basket.
When things weren't working for Lowry, opportunities opened up for Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez.
Casey, who finished fifth in the voting for coach-of-the-year honours, had his rotation work cut out for him while trying to match the Nets' personnel play for play.