TORONTO - Patrick Patterson's recent return from injury was cause for celebration for the Toronto Raptors.
And that says everything about Patterson's path from an almost-afterthought to a key cog in the Raptors' roster.
Patterson played 25 minutes in Wednesday's 107-103 victory over the Houston Rockets in his second game back after missing 11 with an elbow injury. He finished with eight points, plus a block, a steal and an assist.
"He did (look more comfortable)," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "The rust is still there, especially on his shot. Usually those shots are money.
"But it's just going to take a little time and all the workouts in the world can't duplicate the way the games are going to be. But he's coming. Again, it's going to probably have to come a little quicker than we expected."
Quicker because Amir Johnson is battling a bad ankle and sat all but three minutes in Wednesday's game. And quicker because, with seven games to go, Toronto is battling for a favourable opponent in the post-season and needs all the help it can get.
The Raptors (43-32) are third in the Eastern Conference and two-and-a-half games ahead of the Brooklyn Nets for the Atlantic Division title.
The 25-year-old Patterson was sidelined with a sprained collateral ligament in his right elbow. With his elbow wrapped in a brace, he played eight minutes in his first game back — Monday's 93-83 loss at Miami. He said he definitely felt an improvement on Wednesday.
"Yeah, it's all about getting my wind, getting my feet underneath me, getting more involved with the team, having more opportunities," he said. "Trying to get back in the swing of things, getting my body comfortable, pretty much getting my feet wet and focusing on my jump shot and scoring. Getting used to the brace and getting used to shooting with something on my arm like that."
Patterson, who is averaging 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds since he was acquired in the seven-player trade in December that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento, has been huge off the bench for Toronto. His contributions prompted Casey to call the 6-9, 235-pound forward a "godsend" for the Raptors.
It was obvious how sorely he was missed when the bench was outscored 59-11 in a loss two weeks ago to Phoenix.
Casey said he'll continue to increase Patterson's playing time.
"It has to (go up), and it will," the coach said. "We want to bust off the rust, just coming back after missing 11 games like that is tough for anybody, get those windpipes blown out and rust off."
The Raptors host the Indiana Pacers on Friday, and then travel to Milwaukee on Saturday. They'll have three days off before hosting Philadelphia next Wednesday.
Patterson will have one eye Saturday on what's happening down in Arlington, Texas. His Kentucky Wildcats are facing the Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four semis.
"I wish I could be there," Patterson said. "I'm not saying 'unfortunately we have a game,' but if it wasn't for the game I'd be there sitting in the front row with them.
"Best-case scenario, I feel like it's a calling from God that after that Milwaukee game we don't have a game until Wednesday. So if they win — and they will win — on Saturday, as soon as the game is over, I'm flying straight to Texas and I'll be there for the championship."
Patterson was part of the 2010 Wildcats team that lost to West Virginia in the regional final, and then saw five of its players taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Patterson went 14th overall.
He jumped to the defence of Kentucky coach John Calipari, who's been harshly criticized for his ability to attract one-and-done stars destined for the NBA. He has nine freshmen on his roster, and five could go in the first round of the draft, including twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
"This group has overcome so much adversity, everyone was against them all year long, talking about their youth and inexperience, and lack of effort and too much hype around the twins, and this and that," Patterson said. "They focus on themselves, they focus on the team, they did what they had to do to win games, beat the No. 1 team Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan. . . with their backs against the wall they prevailed. I'm definitely proud of those boys."