The Toronto Raptors were having trouble beating the NBA odds – and some of the better teams in the league. Then James Johnson reappeared. Will that be enough to overcome the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday?
Jason’s record as of Feb. 6: 33-28-3 ATS, 2-4 Totals
Every good basketball team needs a glue guy. You know the type: someone who brings energy, grit, hustle, and all those touchy-feely intangibles – especially on defense. Ideally, it’s the best player on your team, like LeBron James. Usually, it turns out to be a “3-and-D” player, like Bruce Bowen.
And then you have James Johnson of the Toronto Raptors. After missing most of the previous 10 games with a hamstring injury (and/or rubbing some important people the wrong way), Johnson made his return Friday night against the visiting Los Angeles Clippers. The Raptors were down 45-36 when Johnson entered the game in the second quarter. By the time it was all over, Toronto was up 123-107, crushing the NBA odds as a 1-point home fave.
Does this mean the Raptors are due for another hot streak? They’re at full strength for the first time in a long time, and they could be a solid NBA pick this Sunday (7:00 p.m. ET, NBA-TV) when they host the San Antonio Spurs. Toronto opened as a 1.5-point chalk before moving to +1 at press time.
Needs More Johnson
You might remember the Toronto Raptors (34-17 SU, 25-25-1 ATS) as the team that started the 2014-15 NBA campaign at 13-2 SU and 10-5 ATS. But we haven’t seen that team in a while. DeMar DeRozan (16.0 PER) sat out six weeks with a groin injury, then Johnson (18.0 PER) mysteriously fell out of head coach Dwayne Casey’s rotation. The Raptors were 7-3 SU and 4-5-1 ATS while Johnson languished on the bench.
On Friday, Johnson made good. He was a perfect 7-of-7 from the floor for 16 points, all seven of his field goals coming from close range. Johnson also added five rebounds, three assists and two steals in just 19 minutes. Glue guy. He’s not much of a floor-spacer (19.4 percent from downtown), which is ostensibly what keeps him out of the starting rotation, but Johnson is Toronto’s best defender (plus-2.1 DBPM), and an infectious source of energy.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that much whether Johnson is starting or coming off the bench, as long as he gets his minutes. But there are other elements about Casey’s rotation that have the locals concerned. The biggest issue, literally, is with 6-foot-11 center Jonas Valanciunas (20.4 PER). He’s blossoming into one of the best young bigs in the Eastern Conference, yet Valanciunas typically spends most of the fourth quarter nailed to the bench. It’s not foul trouble (3.5 per 36 minutes). It’s not poor free-throw shooting (80.4 percent). Casey says he prefers to match Valanciunas against “true centers,” i.e. human pylons.
The Red Rocket’s Glare
The Spurs (32-18 SU, 22-26-2 ATS) have a couple of those guys. Current starting center Aron Baynes (14.7 PER) and back-up Tiago Splitter (16.9 PER) aren’t known for their athleticism. But San Antonio also has Boris Diaw (12.2 PER), a glue guy in his own right, as well as former Raptor Matt Bonner (10.5 PER) and his 35.9-percent shooting from behind the arc. Don’t be surprised if Diaw is on the floor to close out Sunday’s game while Valanciunas is sulking underneath a towel.
Again, as long as Jonas gets his minutes in somewhere, Toronto should be fine. The Spurs are 5-2 SU and 1-5-1 ATS in their past seven games; point guard Tony Parker (14.9 PER) might finally be running out of gas at age 32, and back-up PG Patty Mills (14.0 PER) hasn’t lived up to the standard he set last year (18.7 PER). Getting the replenished Raptors +1 at home in this situation is a bargain. Don’t believe us? Check out the Simple Rating System at Basketball Reference, where Toronto (plus-4.31 SRS) is ahead of San Antonio (plus-3.63 SRS). Math is good.
Free NBA Pick: Take the Raptors at Bovada Sports Book