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Raptors dig deep to hold off Houston Rockets at ACC

The news that Kyle Lowry would not play for the Raptors was hardly a surprise when it came down an hour or so before they tipped off with the Houston Rockets.

He’d walked off the Air Canada Centre court following a late-afternoon walkthrough in full sweats, not practice gear, so there was little doubt.

No one saw the other one coming — the departure of Amir Johnson after just three minutes because of a bad ankle, and what was a bad night could have turned terribly ugly.

But this is a different Raptors crew than any we’ve seen in years — deeper, more resilient, more confident, more capable.

Instead of moping or caving into circumstances, they did what they’ve been doing all year. They sucked it up and got the job done.

DeMar DeRozan was brilliant in the fourth quarter as the Raptors overcame a sluggish start to beat the Houston Rockets 107-103 and move closer to an Atlantic Division title.

Now 43-32 on the season, the Raptors hold a 2 1/2 game lead on the Brooklyn Nets, who were hammered by the Knicks in New York Wednesday night.

DeRozan finished with 29 points and had two pivotal assists on key fourth-quarter baskets as he made up for the absence of two starters.

Jonas Valanciunas awoke in the second half as well and finished with 15 points.

James Harden had 26 and Chandler Parsons 20 for the Rockets, who were without centre Dwight Howard and point guard Patrick Beverley.

The decision to sit Lowry wasn’t a hard one. His knee had swelled immediately after he banged it with LeBron James on Monday and while examinations on Monday and Tuesday showed no structural damage, he was hobbling a bit after Toronto’s late-afternoon walkthrough and the risk of doing more damage was far too great.

“The medical people make that decision more than anybody else,” coach Dwane Casey said before the game. “If it’s up to him he would go on one leg but you don’t want to risk his future health in the next couple of weeks when rest would help it.”

Wednesday was the first game Lowry had missed after starting the first 64 games of the season. Greivis Vasquez started in Lowry’s place, logically, and Nando De Colo was pressed into service as the primary backup.

De Colo was solid in eight first half minutes with four points and a couple of assists, but he was a bit skittish in the third quarter and Casey went quickly back to Vasquez.

Johnson, meanwhile, just couldn’t get his sore right ankle loosened up during the pre-game warmup. He started as usual, but it was obvious he was nowhere near full mobility and he retired to the locker room less than three minutes into the game.

Forced into using a series of unorthodox lineups — because of the injured players and because the helter-skelter transition game of the Rockets was chewing the up in the first quarter — the Raptors got solid production from deep in the bench.

Patrick Patterson, playing just his second game after missing 11 with an elbow injury, seemed close to back to form and provided some energy and key shots in the first half when the Raptors overcame a terrible start.

Patterson had played just eight minutes on Monday night in Miami but was pressed into more service as soon as Johnson left for the night.

It was out of necessity, because the Raptors would have rather he had more time to get up to game speed.

“We wanted to bust off the rust (with the limited time against the Heat),” Casey said before the game. “Coming back after missing 11 games like that is tough for anybody to get those windpipes blown out, and the rust off.

“The problem is, there’s not a lot of practice time right now so there’s not any banging and hitting from a full practice. The other night was his first time to get some game speed, game simulated situation and it’s totally different.”

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