The Toronto Raptors had every reason to blow Sunday's game.
Short-handed and tired after travelling through the night following Friday's crushing loss in Los Angeles, coach Dwane Casey told his team at halftime he wouldn't accept any excuses.
The Raptors listened, with Amir Johnson leading the way with 17 points and a career-tying 16 rebounds, to rally from a 17-point deficit to top the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-96
"It was like day and night, and I expected it just because of the schedule," Casey said of the Raptors' horrible first half. "Guys were groggy coming in, time change, whatever, we had every [excuse] to mail in this game."
Six Raptors scored in double digits with Alan Anderson leading the way with 18 points — 10 of them in the fourth quarter. Kyle Lowry finished with 15, rookie Terrence Ross added 14, DeMar DeRozan scored 13 and Jonas Valanciunas chipped in 11 for the Raptors (25-39), who won for just the second time in eight outings despite missing Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani.
Lowry said that Casey came into the halftime dressing room with "a little bit of a fiery side to him."
"Play with pride, he didn't want us to go out there and say 'Whatever, we lose, we lose,"' Lowry said of the coach's speech. "The team responded really well."
Casey said it was Johnson — who also had three blocked shots — who set the tone for the hard-nosed second-half.
"He's just an old vet. He's one of the old guys but young guys at the same time," Casey said. "He is a warrior, I've said that all year. This team is about experience and he's got experience. He's seen everything. The one thing you are not going to beat Amir Johnson on is effort and fight and tonight it was contagious."
Dion Waiters topped the Cavaliers (21-42) with 21 points, while C.J. Miles added 15. Brampton, Ont., native Tristan Thompson finished with 11 points.
Cavs star guard Kyrie Irving had 12 points before leaving the game late in the third quarter with a left shoulder contusion, suffered when he fell hard after a bone-rattling collision along the baseline with Valanciunas. Irving, who drained a three-pointer with less than a second on the clock to lead the Cavs over the Raptors on their last trip to Toronto, managed to make one of two one-handed free throws before heading to the training room.
'Doesn't feel right'
"I wouldn't call it a cheap shot or anything like that but I've done that play a lot of times and I've never come out feeling like this," Irving said. "It still doesn't feel right."
The Raptors were playing their first game back at Air Canada Centre since winning just one on a four-game western road trip, and Sunday's game looked like it was going to be more of the same for the struggling team.
They trailed for most of the game and fell behind by 17 in the second quarter before making a huge run in the third, pulling even with just under three minutes in the frame and taking a five-point advantage into the fourth.
A bucket by Anderson with 5:40 left put Toronto up 90-82, but the Cavs chipped away at the lead and a driving layup and free throw by Waiters gave the visitors a 95-94 lead with 1:20 to play.
Lowry drained two free throws then, with Alonzo Gee all over him, connected on a beautiful turnaround jumper with 14 seconds left to bring the capacity crowd of 19,800 to its feet and clinch the win for Toronto.
"Gee is a good defender so I went to a move that I knew I could get the shot off and I work on," Lowry said. "So I went to the move and made it."
Ross started in place of the ailing Gay and provided one of the highlights of the night, spinning through the Cavs' defence while driving to the hoop. He missed his layup, but got his own tip-in.
Gay was held out of the game due to a back stiffness, while Bargnani is scheduled to undergo diagnostic testing on his strained right elbow on Monday.
Acquired in a trade with Memphis on Jan. 30, Gay has been averaging 17.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, but struggled in the Raptors' 118-116 overtime loss to the Lakers on Friday, shooting 0-for-8 in the fourth quarter and missing on a potentially game-tying jumper on the last play.
Bargnani missed 26 games earlier this season when he tore ligaments in his right elbow and sprained his right wrist Dec. 10 at Portland. He re-injured it Friday when he got wedged on a pick-and-roll coverage.
The Cavs shot 52 per cent and Thompson grabbed six rebounds as the visitors raced out to a seven-point lead late in the first quarter and took a 27-20 advantage into the second.
Miles poured in 13 points in the second quarter, and a driving jumper by Irving put the Cavaliers up by 17 points about four minutes before halftime. Toronto ended the half with an 11-5 run to cut Cleveland's lead to 55-46 at the break.
Ross had 10 points in a third quarter that saw the Raptors outscore the Cavs 33-19.