Chris Bosh stared at the roof of the ACC with a defiant expression of happiness. Charlie Villanueva bumped chests with his teammates on the sideline. And Jalen Rose had his infamous grin back.
These were just some of the more outward signs demonstrating that the Raptors had at last gotten the proverbial monkey off their backs as Toronto beat the Miami Heat yesterday afternoon 107-94 in front of over 17,000 jubilant fans. Leading the way for Toronto once again was Chris Bosh who had a season high 27 points to go with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. While Chris Bosh was the high scorer for the Raptors and the main factor in coming back from another desolate first quarter, he was by no means alone on this afternoon. Mike James pitched in 25 points and 6 assists, Jalen Rose had his best game of the season with 22 and 6 assists and while Charlie Villanueva didn't have his best shooting night with only 8 points, he did haul down 12 rebounds, 5 of which were on the offensive end.
The game started out looking all too reminiscent of previous contests whereby Toronto found themselves having to come back from a huge first quarter deficit. The Raptors shot only 16% missing their first 8 shots and were just 3 for 19 overall in the quarter. At the end of the second Miami led 24-13 and at one point Toronto was down by as many as 15. Coach Sam Mitchell however did a great job subbing players in and out in an attempt to spear the team on and by the end of the first half Toronto had closed Miami's lead to only 5. Toronto spent most of the third quarter behind by that same margin but in the fourth quarter the team charged ahead to take the lead for good ending their 9 game losing streak. Toronto scored 40 points in the fourth quarter and as opposed to the first quarter, Miami started to miss shots while Toronto hit their own attempts. The Raptors shot 35 foul shots going 25-35 from the stripe while Miami in contrast only had 18 attempts hitting on 12 of them. This was a key factor in keeping Toronto close until Jalen Rose and Mike James got going. Toronto also outrebounded Miami 47-39 thereby limiting phenom Dwyane Wade's chances for easy baskets.
FRANCHISE'S CRITICAL BEATDOWN:
-The Raptors - In the past few games we've discussed at length here on this site that the Raptors were making "baby steps" towards their first win of the season. Their defence had tightened up in the past 2 games, the rookies were really starting to have an impact, substitution patterns were becoming more regimented and regular and the feeling was that the Raptors just needed one game where they put all of these things together and this would result in the win. This was the game. The entire team was one big high in this case from Sam Mitchell on down. Chris Bosh obviously gets the first star as it was his play that kept the Raptors in the game early on. However many other players whose numbers don't pop out at you on the boxscore such as Mo Pete and Matt Bonner, each made big plays. The Raptors didn't even play terrible defensively in the first quarter, it was simply that they just couldn't get their own shots to drop and this resulted in the discrepancy on the scoreboard. The team though just kept fighting.
A great example of this fight was none other then our much maligned friend Jalen Rose. Rose struggled with his shot early on and simply was a non-factor. However Sam Mitchell re-inserted Rose midway through the fourth quarter and Rose in turn played his best basketball of this young season. He immediately got into the low blocks posting his man up, drawing double teams for kick outs and hit a HUGE 3 point shot from the corner bringing Toronto within 1. He also played well defensively even stealing the ball from Wade on one possession resulting in a Raptor basket in the other direction. If the Raptors can get this Jalen Rose to keep showing up, it changes the entire complexion of this basketball club and takes some of the scoring load off of Chris Bosh and Mike James. Speaking of James, he was brilliant again. He played within the offence and didn't hesitate to go hard to the basket when the Raptors' offence began to stagnate. He didn't always settle for the long jump shot and his 14 fourth quarter points (including a HUGE 3 pointer from almost 30 feet out basically sealing the win for Toronto) were huge.
Even the usual low on the post-game report, the center position, showed signs of life. As a matter of fact, Rafael Araujo played his best basketball game in a Raptor uniform in months and while only scoring 2 points, he did play 20 minutes, only picked up 2 fouls, grabbed 6 rebounds and was maybe the most unlikely factor in Toronto's win. Miami's front line of Alonzo Mourning and Udonis Haslem on paper seemed to have a huge advantage but Hoffa was having none of it. Early in the game Miami was dominating the "points in the paint" category as Zo was getting easy looks close to the basket and simply knocking Matt Bonner and Chris Bosh around. In came the Brazillian Beast and immediately he started pushing Alonzo back, frustrating the ancient center into foul trouble and giving him a seat on the bench. Even when Zo re-entered later in the game, the Heat had gotten their offence away from him and as a result began settling for way too many perimeter shots. Zo simply did not get the touches and Raptors' fans have Hoffa in part to thank for this. Make no mistake, matched up against athletic young pivots like Dwight Howard, Araujo's still gonna have problems. But if he can come in and bang bodies, grab some rebounds and keep some opposing bodies out of the paint, that's all fans at this point are asking for.
Finally, all 3 rookies had serious impacts on this game, especially Jose Calderon and CV Smooth. As soon as Calderon was inserted into the offence, it began to run like clockwork. The ball moved from side to side, back and forth, and almost always found its way into the hands of the hot shooter be it Chris Bosh, Mike James or even Jalen near the end of the game. As a result Calderon racked up 9 assists in only 26 minutes of work and had only 2 turnovers to show for this. He also did a decent job defensively on Gary Payton, grabbed 3 rebounds and in what was one of the highlights of the game, flew through the air for an offensive rebound getting fouled but dunking on Alonzo Mourning's head in the process. The more he and Mike James play together, the more they seem to fit perfectly. James slides over to the two guard spot to pick up the opposing team's best slasher (Wade in this case) and fills the catch and shoot scoring void. Calderon simply picks the defenses apart and finds the open man.
And let's not forget Charlie Villanueva. Along with Chris Paul and maybe Andrew Bogut, he's got to be a favourite for rookie of the year early in the season. Villanueva, as mentioned, didn't shoot well, 4-11, but his offensive rebounding, intensity and hustle (all things that worried scouts incidentally) have been a sheer blessing to this club. He's looked good on the court at the same time as Chris Bosh and if these two keep attacking the glass the way they have been then the Raptors' braintrust may not be in such a dire need of someone to fill the traditional center role. After all, 3 power forwards named Rasheed, Ben and Antonio seem to be doing a good job in a similar situation in Detroit...
For Raptors' fans this win was a long time coming. The hope now is that the team can forget about getting that first win and now go out and concentrate on just playing to the best of their abilities. In addition, the win over Miami, one of the league's most dominant squads even without Shaq, should give the team confidence heading into their West Coast road trip.
But let's leave the final words to Dwyane Wade. "This is a good team, they have just fallen short a couple of times..."
Here's to hoping that the "falling short" has been taken care of and now the REAL season begins for the Raptors.