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Tip-In: Forging an Identity

After TJ Ford’s shot hit the bottom of the basket, Raptors coach Sam Mitchell grabbed Ford in a bear-hug of exuberance…before quickly releasing him and smoothing down his suit.

It was hard for the Raptors’ coach not to display some emotion after his team ground-out a

In fact while TJ Ford hit the game-winning shot, my MVP for last night’s win is Sam Mitchell and the Toronto coaching staff.

The Raptors were without three of their main players, had just come off a loss to the Phoenix Suns where they had been run out of the gym, were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and yet Mitchell still got his troops up for the task and had them extremely well prepared.

Take Toronto’s defense last night.

This was the best defensive display I’ve seen from this club all season…actually, perhaps in two seasons. I guessed that Mitchell would throw a lot of zone defense the Clippers’ way due to their inability to hit the long-range bomb (they went one for one from beyond the arc) but he also had his team doubling Elton Brand and forcing the Clippers to settle for mid-range jump shots. In addition, Mitchell made sure that the Raptors knew not to double-down on Brand if it meant leaving Cuttino Mobley, LA’s one three-point threat, open. And Mitchell didn’t stop there! He had his team playing man-to-man on a number of occasions to give the Clippers different looks, and they did so quite effectively with perhaps the exception of Corey Maggette’s disgusting dunk on top of Rasho Nesterovic’s head. But even after that posterization, Nesterovic gave Joey Graham an earful to let him know that he had to do a better job of staying in front of Maggette to he didn’t have easy access to the rim. Toronto rode this defense even in a shaky end of the fourth quarter offensively until TJ Ford dropped-in the winning shot.

So what happens when Bosh comes back?

Well for starters, playing teams like Phoenix shouldn’t be so daunting.

No, I don’t think it’ll be much of a transition when CB4, Garbajosa and Calderon return. In fact, if there’s a silver lining to all these injuries for Toronto, it’s that the Raptors seem to be finding an identity that didn’t exist earlier this season. No, this is not the run-and-gun team that was advertised during the pre-season. In fact, I only counted one bad shot taken by Toronto in last night’s game and the Raptors in the past few weeks have really seemed to have settled into their offence. Yes, they still get out in transition with the best of them (see Fred Jones reverse two-hander last night) but they also get the ball into the post and use Rasho Nesterovic and Andrea Bargnani much more now to set up shots for other players.

And to close things off, let’s talk for a minute about Bargnani. Is he not the rookie of the year right now? With each passing game I see new tricks from "The Magician’s" bag and lately he displays a maturity and understanding of the game beyond his years. After a few bad misses and emphatic rejections at one point, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Il Mago start settling for outside shots or simply take himself out of the offense entirely. Instead, on the very next possession Bargnani took it right back at the Clippers’ bigs drawing the foul and then calmly sinking both free-throws.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But seeing Bargnani drain step-back jumpers from 30 feet, alter shots, and use his first-step to get to the rim really makes me wonder just how scary it’s going to be for opponents once he and Bosh spend some time playing together and keep developing. It could very well be a case of "pick your poison."

But for now, as fans let’s just enjoy this win. Toronto keeps pace at the top of the Atlantic Division, gets a quality win (against a Western Conference opponent no less) and now gets a day off before heading further North West to face Portland and Seattle, both winnable games.