Normally, a grind-it-out win over the lowly 7 and 23 Sacramento Kings wouldn’t be cause for celebration.
However last night’s win showcased numerous things that had to bring a smile to the Raptors’ collective, starting with Jermaine O’Neal.
O’Neal played his best game of the season in a Raptors’ uniform, finishing with 36 points on an incredible 15 of 19 from the floor. Oh, he also grabbed nine boards, four on the offensive end, had three steals, blocked two shots and got to the line eight times.
Nope, not too shabby.
It was Jermaine who imposed his will on the overwhelmed Kings’ front-line time and time again and with Chris Bosh struggling through foul trouble all night, the Dinos needed every one of his 36 against a feisty Kings’ squad.
In fact, while watching the second quarter of the game I had a feeling this one was going to be a fight to the finish. This was one of those games where Sacramento was suddenly playing over their heads and probably could have given the Lakers or Celtics a good run. The Kings normally shoot about 30 per cent from long-range and while they finished at a solid 40 per cent clip, for a while it looked like they just weren’t going to miss at all.
And as the Raptors turnovers in the first half piled up, those long-range daggers by the men in purple not only kept them in the game, but enabled them to eventually seize the lead.
That’s why beyond Jermaine O’Neal’s return to form, there were many other reasons I was so happy with this final outcome, first and foremost, the fact that the Raps fought tooth-and-nail to not only reclaim the lead after losing it, but to maintain it until the final buzzer sounded. Toronto in the past while has had a nasty habit of jumping out to leads, big or small, and then losing them down the stretch, unable to match their opponents’ mental toughness. Tonight looked like it could have been another prime example but the team just didn’t quit.
It was a great step in the right direction, and especially for O’Neal who looked like he had stepped out of a flying Delorean set to 2003. He got great position deep in the post, aggressively attacked the rim, and only on a very few occasions settled for the outside shot. If O'Neal can play at even somewhere near this level consistently on the offensive end, suddenly the TJ Ford trade looks like a steal for the Raps (Ford got the dreaded DNP-CD tonight against Memphis) and more importantly, perhaps it gives Bryan Colangelo some more to work with in terms of evaluating the team as it nears the trade deadline.
On top of this, Raps’ fans finally saw some life from Andrea Bargnani. With Bosh sitting on the bench with four fouls, Jay Triano let Bargs go to work surrounded by a smaller line-up of Graham, Parker and others and Andrea dropped in a very efficient 14 points on four of five shooting. Most importantly however, he made five trips to the free-throw line because of his aggressiveness down low and attacking the hoop.
He still never managed to grab a single rebound, and was only +1 on the night statistically, but hey, we’ll take what we can get at this point right?
The one concerning thing for me though, that only seemed to serve to back up my theories on Andrea’s development outside of Toronto, was that Bargs was most effective when both O’Neal AND Bosh were on the bench. Suddenly then he was in the paint demanding the ball, aggressively looking for his shot, and not simply floating around aimlessly. It might therefore be wise for Coach Triano to look to use Andrea in more situations like this going forward.
Finally, even though the Raptors did a terrible job of taking care of the ball in the first half they corrected their mistakes and in the second, the club got a big boost from its bench.
Besides Andrea, others like Graham and Parker made big plays for Toronto and even Solomon and Hump had their moments. In the grand scheme of things and in a dog-fight like last night, these incremental plays make all the difference, especially considering Bosh’s off night and how small the margin of error is for the Dinos.
That now makes two straight wins, and a nice shot of confidence hopefully heading to Portland tonight to face the Blazers.
Portland is coming off a tough loss to Dallas on Christmas night whereby they struggled down the stretch and allowed a smaller and quicker Mavericks team to out-work them to get the W.
Toronto almost had a win earlier this year against the Blazers and again, this could be a victory for the Raps. But to do so, they’re going to need to take care of three areas:
1) Win the battle inside.
I thought last night that Jay Triano did a great job coaching the Raps, especially in terms of play-calls out of time-outs and ensuring that his "Bigs" were getting the requisite touches in the offence. The team as a result settled for far fewer jump shots and errant looks. This needs to continue tonight against Portland. For all of Greg Oden’s hype, he’s miles away from being a solid NBA player for his position and in fact I felt that Blazers’ coach Nate MacMillan’s decision to pull Joel Przybilla in favour of Oden against the Mavericks cost the Blazers the game in the end.
And outside of the underrated Przybilla, Portland is still pretty weak up front with only the likes of Channing Frye and Ike Diogu waiting in the wings. LaMarcus Aldridge is the one true threat for Portland and after dominating Chris Bosh in their last match-up, I’m hoping to see CB4 out for revenge. If he and O’Neal can attack quickly on the offensive end and keep the Blazers’ off the glass on D, then this is a huge first step in getting a win. Last time these teams met it was the offensive rebounding that was the difference and so the entire Raptors’ squad needs to ensure they step in and give Bosh and O’Neal some help.
Otherwise we might be seeing a lot of Jake Voskuhl once again.
2) Keep Brandon Roy at bay.
Easier said than done of course but if you saw the Blazers’ loss to the Mavs on Thursday night, you know how important this is. If Roy is out of synch, so is the Blazers’ offence for the most part and they start relying on long-range shots from the likes of Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez – not exactly the best use of their athletic abilities.
Roy makes this team go and therefore players like Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Joey Graham and even Calderon and Solomon, need to be locked-in from the jump to ensure that he doesn’t start heating up.
3) Play with energy from the jump.
This game has all the elements of a blow-out to it.
-Toronto playing the second night of a back-to-back against a tough team looking to avenge an unnecessary loss to a conference foe.
-The Raptors feeling overconfident after two straight wins, even though both were against undermanned teams that they should easily have beaten.
-And the Raptors starting to look forward too early to the end of what has been a very up and down road trip.
If the Raps don’t come out aggressive from the get-go, this one could be over fast. Portland can be a lethal offensive team and early put-backs off of offensive boards, uncontested 3-pointers, and open dunks in transition could put a fork in Toronto’s plans for a third-straight win early in the game.
To avoid this, the club really needs to block out their fatigue and play their style of game. The fact that Chris Bosh was limited to only 27 minutes of action last night should incidentally help in this area and hopefully Toronto’s bench is ready once again to come in and give the club a boost.
Without it, Raptors’ fans might be tuning out early on and looking forward to Monday’s match against the Golden State Warriors.