SPORTS

Fan favourite James Johnson says he's OK with limited role on Raptors

04/20/2015 06:19 EDT | Updated 07/11/2015 11:59 EDT
TORONTO - Firmly planted at the end of the Raptors bench Saturday, and with Toronto falling further behind, James Johnson heard the fans calling his name.

They pleaded with coach Dwane Casey to play the red-haired fan favourite.

"I did. I did. I did (hear them)," Johnson said. "I love our fans. It gave me a warm spot in my heart. I got the chills a little bit."

Johnson never got into Game 1, a 93-86 loss to the Washington Wizards that saw veteran Paul Pierce have his way with the Raptors, scoring a game-high 20 points.

The athletic forward played in 70 games for Toronto in the regular season, averaging 7.9 points and 3.7 rebounds. His greatest strengths are on the defensive end.

When the game looked bleak and Johnson remained on the bench, fans took to social media to voice their displeasure. Some mused about a beef between the coach and player.

"(I actually have the best relationship with Casey) of any of my coaches thus far in my career," Johnson said Monday, on the eve of Game 2. "It's his decision, wanting to win. And he's going to stick to it. He always has. He always will."

Casey reiterated Monday that the issue is matchups, and Johnson's abilities makes him valuable in certain situations.

"There are some games we need that skillset, and what he has, his athleticism, his physical ability, and there are some games when we don't," Casey said. "It's not a backup quarterback controversy. James has been in this role the whole year and again, there's going to be a time and place for him in the playoffs."

It may not be soon enough for Raptors fans.

DeMar DeRozan was asked why Johnson — who channelled Dennis Rodman when he dyed his hair bright red just ahead of the playoffs — is so popular.

"You can't tell by the hair? That's just James," DeRozan said. "He's got that perception about him where you can't do nothing but love him.

"His time will come, once he steps out there and give the fans the red-haired bandit or whoever he is with the red hair, he's going to go out there and do what we need him to do."

In his younger days, Johnson might not have been so level-headed about his lack of playing time.

"I think that's just part of fatherhood, part of being in the league," Johnson said. "Once I had my son, everything just changed for me. I found out what's more important in life. I want to win. If I'm not (playing), I want to cheer for my team to win."

And while the 28-year-old was warmed hearing his name in the arena in Game 1, he hopes they'll cheer for the team instead.

"I don't want that to affect guys on our bench or guys that are playing in the game, distracting them from what they're doing out there," Johnson said. "It's nice of them to do that. I really appreciate it. But, cheer for the Raptors."

This playoff series has already proved costly to the Raptors. Masai Ujiri was fined US$35,000 Sunday for swearing while addressing fans in Maple Leaf Square, and the team was fined an additional $25,000.

"I was surprised, I didn't think it was that grievous," Casey said of Ujiri's colourful language. "I love Masai's spirit, his love, his passion for the team and what he brings to the table, you can't put a dollar sign on it."

Casey said the pressure is on the Raptors heading into Game 2.

"I don't care who you are, if you lose that first game, you're always anxious for the next game to come," Casey said. "Any time you lose a game in the series, you kind of put the monkey on your back so again, it's still a series, there's a lot of basketball to be played, we can't dwell on what happened Saturday."

The series shifts to Washington for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 on Sunday.

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