There is no pretense to Amir Johnson, a guy who knows what he is and what’s asked of him, a basketball grinder who does not go seeking glory, caring only about doing his job.
He is energy and effort, not much flash but all kinds of substance and his contribution to a significant Raptors victory should not be underestimated.
The 6-foot-9 forward, surely the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the first half of the season for the Raptors, was instrumental in a 110-88 pasting of the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday afternoon.
He guarded Dirk Nowitzki and ran the floor, he finished at the rim and was active on the glass, and he provided a huge boost in the decisive second quarter. When it comes time for the Unsung Hero award, it has to go to Johnson.
“I know my role here,” the 22-year-old Californian said. “When I come off that bench, I’m pretty much running the floor, getting guys open, getting rebounds, doing anything I can do to give our team a lift. We pretty much didn’t need it (Sunday) because everybody had energy. We played hard.”
But none, really, played harder than Johnson, as has been the case in the overwhelming majority of Raptors games this season. He unfailingly tries to provide a spark, seldom goes long stretches where he’s uninvolved and for a team that was counting on the still-injured Reggie Evans to provide work ethic off the bench, he’s filled in admirably.
“Everything he gets is hustle,” coach Jay Triano said of Johnson. “Roll hard to the basket and if they don’t collapse, he’s going to finish the play; if they do collapse, he’s going to get somebody on the weak side open for a jump shot and I think he did a real good job creating both those opportunities for us.”
The Raptors were full measure for a thorough beat-down of a team that came in with the second-best record in the NBA’s Western Conference. Toronto took control of the game in the second quarter and didn’t cede it in the third.
They held Nowitzki in check with a variety of defensive looks – everyone from Chris Bosh to Johnson to Antoine Wright to Andrea Bargnani got a piece of him – and were never really threatened.
“It was great for us to defend our home court and we really needed to start beating good teams, especially here,” said Bosh, who had 23 points and 13 rebounds, getting the last 8 1/2 minutes of the game off as Toronto won going away.
“To get where we want to go, we have to win big games and (Sunday) was a big game. We came out prepared and I’m really proud of my guys for the way they played.”
The win got Toronto one game over .500 at 21-20, into a virtual tie for fifth place in the East, and was the kind of all-around effort that’s been lacking at times this season.
“We played like a team,” said Jose Calderon, whose excellent second quarter keyed a 34-18 Raptors run that gave them a 13-point halftime lead. “That was a great win for us against the second-best team in the West. We played for 48 minutes, everyone was ready to play and do things on the court.
“I think we beat a really good team. Every win is good but against them it’s a little bit better. We owed them because of the game down there (earlier this season) – they beat us pretty good. We knew that and we were ready for them.”
The Raptors had six steals and forced 11 turnovers that led to 18 points, the kind of aggressive defence Triano has been demanding.
“We kept sharing the basketball and moving, had great energy at the defensive end of the floor that leads to deflections and leads to transition points, leads to guys sharing the basketball, and I thought we did a good job in all those aspects,” said Triano.
So, was it the team’s best game?
“I have to watch the tape and look at it,” he said. “I’m sure, as a coach, we’re going to find small flaws here and there but as long as our energy’s good and we keep contesting and playing at the defensive end, I think we can find ways to score.”
Originally published in The Toronto Star on January 18, 2010
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In honor of the 2014/2015 NBA season NBA.com counts down Amir’s top 10 plays as a Toronto Raptor!