Anderson Leads Raptors Back To Contention
With 19 losses, the Toronto Raptors were dead and buried in early December and there were not many reasons to be optimistic about the rest of Toronto’s season. Sure the early road weary schedule had finally turned in their favor and the team had a home game heavy stretch through the end of February, but Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry were injured on the recent road trip and Amir Johnson was suspended for one game after an act of childish frustration in Portland. Both Landry Fields and Alan Anderson were still out and the team had to recall rookie Quincy Acy from Bakersfield just to be able to dress nine healthy bodies for start of the home stand on December 12.
Toronto was in a deep hole mostly of their own making, but things were about to change big time. A run of eight wins over their next 10 games lifted the spirits and the fortunes of everyone associated with the Raptors.
“We are still digging out of the hole,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey reminded everyone. “We dug ourselves such a big hole at 4-19, we are still digging out of a hole one game at a time, a quarter at a time and just going from there. We are not even looking at the playoffs or talking about it. We are talking about quarters or possessions at a time. We still have work to do defensively. We still have work to do offensively.”
Currently at 12 wins and 20 losses, the tenth place Raptors are just 2.5 games back of the eighth place tied 76ers and Celtics, but this turnaround wasn’t the result of some herculean effort by the team’s best players. Frustration at losing and players taking advantage of opportunities created by the injuries to Bargnani, Lowry and others played a big part.
“After a tough road trip, we just sat back and said we can’t lose like this, we are embarrassing ourselves,” Johnson said. “We decided that nobody is going to help us. It is like you are drowning, but nobody is there to help you but yourself and that is how we looked at it and we are starting to play now. It is just us. We are going to get ourselves out of the hole we dug and that is how we are playing.”
Help did come to the Raptors from an unexpected source, however, the team started winning immediately upon the return of veteran wing Anderson from a foot injury on December 14. The Raptors defense took a noticeable step forward upon his return and the 30-year-old journeyman has provided some badly needed fourth quarter clutch scoring.
“Alan [Anderson] has been big time,” Casey said. “He is our voice of reason right now. A veteran guy, he’s hungry. The young man has been to China, Europe, got cut, his back is against the wall, so that is why I like him. He is an underdog and he plays like an underdog. I think that is the way you have to play in this league like nobody owes you anything.
“He is a leader. He is talking to everybody, telling everybody what to do. Defensively, offensively, he is communicating. He has the guys respect. Even though he doesn’t have a lot of service years in the league, he is older, mature, he is an old soul.”
Anderson is not the guy you would expect to bring leadership to a young team. An undrafted senior from Michigan State, Anderson was signed as a free agent by the Bobcats in 2005 and waived a year later. After playing basketball pretty much anywhere in the world where he could find a job, the Raptors picked him up on a 10-day contract last March and he played himself into a one-year deal. Anderson was supposed to provide bench strength behind Landry Fields, but he has become indispensible to Casey.
“When things get a little shaky, [Anderson] tells them we have to get a stop right here,” Casey said. “He is the veteran voice in the huddle and that’s important.”
“When [Anderson] is on the court, it seems like it is more talkative,” Johnson said. “Even if we have a turnover or we haven’t scored a bucket, there is non-stop talking and it is a big help for me mostly and definitely for the team. Once you get that talking, that helps us on defense and I think that is a big help for everybody on the floor when he is on the court.”
A defensive player since high school, Anderson had the benefits of talking on the court instilled from an early age. If he didn’t talk, he didn’t play and talking on the court is something he has done at every stop in his career.
“My high school was a defensive school, so we always had to talk and if we didn’t talk, we had to run,” Anderson said. “From my last team especially and all the way back to college, the more you talk, the easier it is. If you talk early, it’s always easier to expect whatever is going to happen, a screen, a flare, whatever, you’re always keeping your teammates on alert and it’s just easier. That’s all it is, being aggressive, talking and just helping each other out.”
On the offensive end, Anderson leads the Raptors in scoring off the bench and his aggressive play has him closing out close games for Casey. From guarding the opponent’s top scoring threat to knocking down big three-pointers in the fourth quarter, Anderson has become the impact player in Toronto nobody saw coming.
“The main thing is just to go out there and be aggressive,” Anderson said. “It makes it a lot easier for you, offensively and defensively. There’s a way to be selfish if you take too many shots, so I just take what’s given to me. When I’m open I try to knock them down and when I’m not, I try to create and make things happen and make my teammates better. Defensively, I just try to get after it and don’t take any possessions off.
“Nobody really knew about me, nobody followed me overseas. For the people that watched me and knew about me throughout my career it’s not really a surprise, but nobody knew about Alan Anderson, knew about where he came from or what he did. I’m trying to change that now.”
It has not only been Anderson who has played well over the past ten games. Everyone on the Raptors’ roster has been stepping up and Lowry and Fields have returned from injury to assume new roles and become more effective than earlier in the season. The change in direction created by Anderson shouldn’t be underestimated, however. The 30-year-old journeyman with just 85 games of NBA experience has talked and shot his way into the Raptors’ rotation with great effect. A lot more people will know about Anderson before this season is out.