Lacing Them Up –
I don't think I have ever been so proud to be a Toronto Raptors fan.
Last night is something I will never forget.
The chants of "Howard.....Howard...." the "Jose, Jose, Jose Jose!" and perhaps even more surprising the fans calling "TJ", still gives me chills this morning. Last night, frankly was unbelievable.
I know Franchise will get into the ins and outs of the game but last night one of the biggest keys to the game was the fans. Sitting right behind the Orlando bench the effect we had on their guys was obvious. The players were getting very frustrated and they started to fray at the seams. Howard was visibly shaken by the crowd while Hedo and Nelson were exuding frustration. In fact, after mentioning to Nelson that with four fouls he’d perhaps be "riding the pine for the next 12," Nelson lashed back telling me "where to go." Great stuff.
Even when the Orlando team went on their inevitable run early in the third quarter, the fans picked the Raps up and kept the pedal to the metal. Anthony Parker compared it to a European soccer match (shy the flares etc.)
The Raps fans did their job.
And the guys on the court did theirs.
On a night when the Magic threw two and sometimes three guys at CB4, the rest of the Raptors team made them pay. TJ Ford and Calderon played their best game as a pairing since...well I can't remember when. Kapono continued to be lights out (he is hitting over 60% for the series) and full props goes out to the guy who everyone thought was done for the series...Jamario Moon.
It was an emotional game. It takes a whole lot to get Andrea Bargnani fired up but tonight was that night. It was what all of us fans have been waiting for. It was team intensity. It was, playoff basketball.
Sure the whistles were questionable and yes it was choppy at times. Nevertheless the Sea of Red continued to spur the home team on. It was exactly what this team needed to get back into this series. It is a true shot in the arm.
I felt very fortunate to get to be at last night's game. Unfortunately for a variety of reasons I can't make Game 4. For those of you who do attend I urge you to keep up the standard that was set in last night's game. With that sort of backing the Raps shouldn't lose at home all playoffs long.
I completely agree with Howland, the fans just brought another level to last night’s game.
I wasn’t behind the bench, but even in the upper deck (props to MJ for the ticket hook-ups) the place was WILD.
And Toronto responded.
In fact, the entire game just left me thinking "finally."
Because isn’t this the team we’ve expected all year? I haven’t seen Toronto play like this in months, and it came at a perfect time. As we discussed yesterday, a loss would have psychologically ended the season but now, the Magic looks like they’re the ones who need to make some quick adjustments.
So let’s take a quick look at some of the key points from last night’s win.
A Numbers Game – Everything
When you look at the stats from last evening, you notice one thing – dominance. Toronto outrebounded the Magic, had fewer turnovers, had more steals and blocks, shot a better percentage from the field, beyond the arc and the free throw line, had twice as many assists, and were an Andrea Bargnani free-throw away from having seven players in double figures scoring-wise. Toronto simply out-played the Magic in almost every possible manner.
The Turning Point –
The turning point in this one to me was early in the first quarter, almost right after the tip-off. Jamario Moon, a surprise starter, grabs an offensive board and puts it back for the easy two. His play early in the game set the tone and suddenly we were seeing Orlando committing offensive fouls, missing open shots and looking somewhat disorganized offensively. Even when Toronto got down 6-2, the team was aggressive and looking to attack, and that was something that carried through the entire game.
Temperature Check –
Blazing – The Fans. Howland discussed this at length already but the crowd at the ACC really brought their A game. The Howwwwwward, and "Howard sucks" chants were especially effective in riling everyone up. And you gotta love Raptors’ fans; only at the ACC can you walk down a staircase with a sea of fans yelling "Let’s Go Raptors – VC SUCKS!" I laughed for about 20 minutes after that…
Hot – The Raptors. Last night this team showed just what they are capable of when they are nearly firing on all cylinders. (More on this in a second.) The ball rotation was there, the defence, while still sloppy at times, was greatly improved, and the team was aggressive in finding the open man and looking for shots. I would have liked to have seen the team get to the line more than 14 times, but some of that was simply because Chris Bosh was triple teamed and didn’t have much room to maneuver.
In particular though, you have to give a rousing hand to Toronto’s point guards. TJ Ford finally looked like the player Bryan Colangelo thought he had traded for and absolutely destroyed Orlando at the end of the first half. And then Jose Calderon was equally magnificent, doing his best Steve Nash impersonation on the way to 18 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. Besides doing a great job of running the show, Jose’s four 3-pointers were huge, many of them coming at key moments when the Magic were making a run.
Hot – Sam Mitchell. You have to give credit to Mitchell for the job he did last night. I’m not just talking about the changes in the starting line-up, that could have easily back-fired, but the way he moved guys in and out of the game. He didn’t leave a single player in until they started to become ineffective and his small-ball game-plan had the Magic trying to counter with JJ Redick. I love JJ, but it was pretty sweet to see him miss a 3, and then have Jason Kapono come back down and hit one in Redick’s face as if to say "that’s how you do it in the NBA kid…"
Who knows what line-up Mitchell uses to start game four (although I suspect it will be the same one) but in any event, Sam showed me something last night. Sometimes all the armchair coaches in the league don’t really know what’s best for a team, and sometimes you just have to go with what made you successful all year. The starting line-up he trotted out? Oh that happened to be the same one Toronto employed for most of the season…
Lukewarm – Chris Bosh. Bosh played hard but just looked a bit tired to me last night. I said in the pre-game discussion that he couldn’t do it himself and last night he didn’t have to for a change. In fact, CB4 was nearly invisible until the fourth quarter and he only finished with 15 points and five rebounds in 37 minutes. However a lot of his lack of scoring was simply due to the fact that Orlando was throwing two or three guys at him every time he caught the ball. His five assists back this up and he did a nice job moving the ball. Next game, we may see the Magic revert to single coverage in an attempt to stop the Raptors’ long-range arsenal.
However I’ve got CB4 in the lukewarm category really for one reason – his 3 point shooting. Three 3’s last night? And not one with the shot-clock about to sound? If he can’t get looks down low, fine, but just move the ball, there’s no way I want to see him start thinking he’s Andrea.
Cold – The Orlando Magic. Last night in many ways was like the inverse of Game 1; this time, it was Orlando had nary an answer for Toronto’s offensive onslaught. I imagine we’ll see some adjustments next game but Stan VanGundy’s team just didn’t play smart basketball last night. Rarely did the Magic take advantage of the Raptors’ small line-up and go inside to Howard, and someone needs to remind Rashard Lewis that they’re not paying him $80 million to stand on the perimeter and shoot 3’s. I can live with Dwight catching the ball 15 feet away from the basket all day. He’s hardly Tim Duncan at this point and his ball-handling is still pretty suspect in those situations. Ford and Moon stole the ball from him on a number of occasions as he was trying to back players down from so far out.
Post-game Van Gundy stated that it was all on him to make adjustments and I expect they will. Guys like Maurice Evans, Keyon Dooling and Jameer Nelson were non-factors and come Saturday, all three will be looking to redeem themselves.
Moving On –
Howland sent me this quote from CNNSI.com this morning:
* The Raptors owe some serious propers to the red-clad, flag-waving Air Canada Centre crowd, a lively and organized assembly which maintained a high-decibel level and gave their players the best home-court advantage they could possibly expect. The atmosphere resembled a European soccer match during stretches – somewhat appropriate given Toronto?s melting-pot makeup -- with the fans singing and chanting and standing the entire time while rooting their players to victory.
That description was bang-on and I can’t wait to see what the fans have in store for the Magic on Saturday. There was a tremendous aura of pride in the arena, both from the fans and the players themselves.
I’m hoping that game then becomes the turning point for this team as they realize not only how good they can be, but also that they can be successful without 50 points from Chris Bosh. Multi-faceted teams are always the most dangerous and I thought that everyone who played brought a different element to last night’s affair, even the lesser-mentioned players. Jamario Moon brought some terrific rebounding and defense, and Carlos Delfino looked to get to the basket and did a solid job on Hedo Turkoglu defensively.
And what more can you say about Jason Kapono. The guy is just lights out.
So on we go now to Game 4 in what is suddenly a real series. Can the Raptors bring the same level of passion and intensity? Did Game 3 help them rediscover their confidence? And will we see Sam Mitchell make a few more subtle changes to keep the Magic on their toes?
We’ll find out in a little over 24 hours and based on the atmosphere last night, I can’t wait.