TORONTO â€” Toughness was what Masai Ujiri saw in Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.
And the two new Raptors certainly delivered Friday.
On a night DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points â€” prompting serenades of “M-V-P!” â€” Ibaka and Tucker earned rave reviews in their Raptors debuts, a thrilling, knock ’em down, drag ’em out 107-97 victory over the Boston Celtics.
“That type of physical play, that’s what this league is about,” a pleased coach Dwane Casey said. “The way we competed down the stretch with that group, that’s the physicality we have to play (with) against a very high-powered offensive team like Boston and everybody else we play.
“It’s not a finesse game, it’s not pretty, we knew it was going to be a grind it out game, down 17 and nothing but grit and grime and hard work and want-to is what thatâ€™s about out.”
Ibaka scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Tucker finished with a team-high 10 rebounds â€” including two huge ones in the final minute-and-a-half â€” plus nine points to lift a retooled Raptors team that was missing Kyle Lowry.
“We’ve got so many weapons and so many possibilities,” Tucker said. “Defensively, I think we can really wreak havoc. That last lineup we had, and then you throw Kyle in there, we can really do some things and be special.
“We haven’t practised. I didn’t shoot-around. I didn’t do anything. To see the chemistry we had, me and Serge didn’t know any plays. We were just kind of playing. It was a feel. We were working through it and talking.”
Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson added 11 points apiece for Toronto (34-24).
Isaiah Thomas led Boston (37-21) with 20 points.
Tucker, who was originally drafted by Toronto in 2006, was playing his first game as a Raptor in about a decade, and on virtually no sleep. Acquired at Thursday’s trade deadline, he didn’t arrive in town until 9:30 Friday morning.
“I am extremely tired and excited to get some sleep. Extremely excited,” Tucker said. “I was really excited to get here. Once I got here, the plan was not to play. But once you see guys, and coach called me in during shoot-around and was like ‘You playing?’ I couldn’t look at everyone and be like: I’m not playing.
“I haven’t missed a game in a long time, so I wasn’t planning on missing today.”
The Raptors were among the busier teams at the trade deadline, shipping Terrence Ross to Orlando for Ibaka, then acquiring Tucker from Phoenix, much to the relief of Raptors fans who watched helplessly as the team plummetted down the Eastern Conference standings in recent weeks.
They went into Friday night in fourth place in the East, four games back of the second-place Celtics.
Playing their first game in nine days, the Raptors trailed by as many as 17 points but when Ibaka drilled a three-pointer with 5:58 to play in the third, it capped a spirited 18-7 run that gave the Raptors their first lead since the game’s opening minutes.
“We just played,” DeRozan said. “We just told guys, obviously we hadn’t had a full practice with everybody, everybody don’t know the plays, we just said ‘When we get stops just play.’ Everybody knows how to play basketball. Our main goal was to get stops and we just played. Kept it simple.”
Marcus Smart drilled a three with 3.9 seconds to go to send Boston into the fourth quarter with a 77-74 lead.
The Celtics led by as many as eight points in the fourth quarter, but when DeMarre Carroll knocked down a three-pointer with 3:27 to play, it put Toronto up by two points. DeRozan added a long jumper, and it was a four-point Raptors lead in front of a delighted capacity crowd of 19,800 that included Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
A basket by Jae Crowder pulled Boston to within three, but DeRozan replied with a long jumper with a minute to play that all but sealed Toronto’s victory. The fans were on their feet chanting “M-V-P!” when DeRozan went to the free throw line in the dying seconds.
The Raptors shot 49 per cent on the night, and outrebounded Boston 40-36. The Raptors gave up 19 points on 11 turnovers â€” no surprise with their revamped roster.
Lowry, who sat alongside the coaches in a black suit, said he had “no idea” how he hurt his wrist in the Feb. 15 game versus Charlotte. He played in the NBA all-star game four days later in New Orleans, believing it wasn’t serious.
“I woke up Thursday and told my wife my wrist is a little sore,” Lowry said. “I thought I slept on it wrong. Kinda just try to go through everything, day by day, got a little treatment down there at All-Star. It was a little sore, paid no attention to it. . . but it just constantly stayed bothering me.”
Tests on Friday showed the injury was more serious than first expected. He’ll undergo more tests over the weekend.
“So that’s a blow. A huge blow for us,” Casey said.
The Raptors looked discombobulated at the beginning of the game, allowing the Celtics to shoot 55 per cent in the first quarter and take a 29-18 lead into the second.
The Celtics stretched their lead to 17 points in a second quarter that saw some heated moments. Carroll whacked Thomas with a flagrant foul while chasing him down, and the pint-sized point guard leapt back to his feet and went straight at Carroll, wagging a finger, while teammates held him back. Toronto closed the frame on a 7-0 run, and Boston went into the halftime break up 55-45.
The Raptors host Portland on Sunday, are in New York to face the Knicks on Monday, then play Eastern rival Washington back to back â€” Wednesday in Toronto, and Friday in D.C.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press