As co-writer Jeff Chapman and I stood outside in the cold last night being interviewed by the CBC, I was thinking about the Raptors pending matchup vs. the Houston Rockets and thinking that sometimes you really have to appreciate the ironies in life.
-Leaving your company for a new one only to to have that company get bought out by your old one...
-Winning the Lottery and losing the winning ticket...
-Donnie Wahlberg making millions with New Kids on the Block but his brother Mark eventually being the more famous and credible of the two...
Ok...I'll stop now as this article is starting to sound like an Alanis Morisette song...
But Jagged Little Pill or not, last night's game was truly ironic for Raptor fans on so many levels.
The Toronto Raptors destroyed the Houston Rockets 112-92 for the team's fifth win in a row and saw various plots unfold in front of them including the return of three former Raptors; Tracy McGrady, Lonnie Baxter and Rafer Alston.
Alston played his first game against his former team since he was traded for Mike James as the season was just about to get underway. While a Raptor, Alston had constant issues with head coach Sam Mitchell and even continued to spread the good news about his time here prior to the tip-off last night. Apparently Alston felt that Mitchell did not do a good enough job preparing his team for games...and this is where the irony begins.
Alston has gone from Sam Mitchell's apparent "unprepared" style to play for micromanager Jeff Van Gundy and as a result, "Skip-To-My-Lou's" play this season has suffered. A better 1 on 1 player, Alston has simply not been as effective as hoped in the Houston system and last night's game was further evidence of this. For the evening Alston's stat line looked like this:
2 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds and he was 0-3 from downtown in 34 minutes.
Alston just didn't have his usual "street-ball bounce," and with the exception of one possession, just didn't seem to be comfortable on the court in the Rockets' offensive sets. With Tracy McGrady commanding so many touches, Alston looked lost and you have to wonder if he's even 100% healthy yet.
Mr. Space Mountain Mike James on the other hand was unstoppable. After getting involved with Juwan Howard early in the game (Howard was ejected for shoving the ball into James' face), James took off. He sliced Van Gundy's vaunted defence to pieces, found open teammates, and brought a fire and intensity to the game that Rafer was never able to provide. James numbers at the night's conclusion:
30 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and he was 3 for 6 from downtown in 33 minutes.
As ironic as it was that Rafer, who presumably wanted to play for a more "prepared coach", struggled in such a controlled system, it may have been even more ironic that the coach who Rafer's tirades were directed at, was the more prepared on this night. Sam Mitchell and his staff started 3 point threat Matt Bonner at center forcing aging redwood Dikembe Mutombo to match up against Chris Bosh. While Rafael Araujo probably would have been able to bang bodies with Mount Mutombo, starting Matt Bonner meant that Jeff Van Gundy had to pick his poison. If Mutombo guarded Bonner, Bonner would keep him out on the perimeter thus negating his shot blocking abilities. Because if Mutombo stayed at home in the paint, Bonner would be open to drain 3's from downtown all night. And if Mutombo guarded Bosh, he'd be no match for CB4's quickness but at least would be able to stay in the paint.
In the end, the "unprepared" Mitchell's plan worked to a T and the Raptors connected on 12 long range bombs. In addition, Bosh had a monster game with 22 points and 16 rebounds. And with no Yao Ming in sight and after losing Juwan Howard, the Raptors bigs had free range in the paint. CV Smooth had a great game offensively as a result, especially in the second half and he poured in 21 points for Toronto.
And while Tracy McGrady did have 37 points on the night, Mitchell and co. made sure it took him 31 shots to acheive this. The Raptors put on another impressive defensive display limiting the Rockets to under 45% shooting and each time McGrady touched the ball, two Raptors were in his face. Toronto also did a great job contesting shots for the most part and outrebounded the Rockets 45-38.
In another display of irony, this is the same Tracy McGrady who left Toronto as he wanted to be featured more in the offense and be the team's lone star. Well, 31 shots later, it appears that McGrady truly got what he wished for...and more. He's currently the Rockets' lone star on a team that's beside maybe Indiana, been the most disappointing in the league. And he's also starting to face the same reputation as his cousin who incidentally was also a Raptor at one point and whose team the Raptors face on Sunday. Both are great scorers who just don't seem to be able to take their squads to the next level in the playoffs.
But I digress as this was indeed the Mike James show. The player Jeff Van Gundy referred to last season as one of his "pitbulls" showed the Rockets just what they are now missing and ironically may now be showing the ENTIRE LEAGUE including the Pistons, the Heat, the Bucks and the Celtics who all failed to retain his services at some point. Inevitably this will start an all new debate in Raptorland...considering James' contract situation, should Babcock try and trade him while his value is at an all-time high? Or should he gamble and try and resign James at a reasonable amount assuming Mike opts out of his contract at the end of this season. Obviously this situation will become more and more of a concern as the trade deadline draws closer...but for now, let's just pay our Spacemountain fare, sit back and enjoy the ride...