Lacing Them Up –
"I have an ego, but my team is first. I work for the Raptors and I play for the Raptors, I don't play for Jose Calderon. What I want is to be in the playoffs, I want to have a chance to play in the second round, so I don't try to be 20 points a game or something like that…"
That quote was taken from an interview the Globe and Mail’s Michael Grange had with Jose Calderon prior to last night’s game.
I decided to start this recap off with it as I think it speaks volumes about Mr. Calderon, who did something quite remarkable by suggesting he come off the bench in favour of starting TJ Ford.
Post-game last night, Howland and I were discussing the sheer uniqueness of what Jose did, and we agreed that you’d be hard-pressed to find many players in professional sports, let alone the NBA, that would have done the same thing.
Everyone talks the talk about being a "team player," but how many actually walk the walk as well?
For all the "I love my team-mates" talk by someone like Shaquille O’Neal while he was a member of the Heat, hearing him change his tune now as a Sun and spout unprofesionalims about former team-mates Chris Quinn and Ricky Davis just reaffirms that even the most committed "team" players in the NBA usually are team players only if the situation suits them personally.
We’ve seen it with the likes of Kobe, Vince and Jason Kidd, who have looked to force trades or take their views public when they are unsatisfied with the level of talent surrounding them.
And we’ve even seen it as Raptor fans from the likes of Jalen Rose and Rafer Alston, even in silent protest.
So finding out that Jose suggested that Ford return to the starting line-up during their West Coast road swing, and then again just days ago, really shows just how great an understanding of the "big picture" Calderon has, something that is invaluable to a team.
And based on this, I’m now more sure than ever that Jose will be a Raptor next season.
I never understood why people thought that reinserting TJ in the starting line-up would lead to Jose leaving in the off-season. Here was a guy who had always spoken about simply wanting to play for a winning team that he enjoyed being around, not one where he was necessarily the starter. His recent display only solidified this line of thought and as unbelievable as it is, here is a player who truly cares only about his club’s wins and losses when all is said and done.
And let’s face it – as a restricted free agent, the man is going to get paid.
So I hope everyone can stop the "Jose isn’t going to stay with the team now that they’ve rewarded TJ’s poor play with the starting role."
Obviously Calderon doesn’t see it that way, he simply sees it as a strategic basketball decision in effort to buoy a struggling club.
And it worked last night.
The bigger question I think is what happens with Ford this off-season.
He hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the Raptor faithful and for whatever reason (be it mental preparedness or a simple refusal to accept his role) has been ineffective as a back-up option.
If TJ plays like he did last night, leads this team into the playoffs and past the first round and remains healthy, then perhaps once again he becomes a valuable commodity in trade proposals for Bryan Colangelo.
Of course we’ll have to wait a while to see how this all plays out but as mentioned, last night was a step in the right direction.
A Numbers Game – 40.8
This was Detroit’s field goal percentage on the night. Toronto gave one of their better defensive efforts of the year and kept Detroit’s scorers at bay en route to their 89 to 82 victory.
Not to rain on the parade here however but Detroit DID settle far too often for jump shots in this game. Minus Richard Hamilton there was little motion offensively and very little production in the paint from one of the league’s premier teams in terms of size down low. The Raptors themselves shot almost 50 per cent but still need to do a better job of scoring both in transition and around the basket.
The Turning Point –
Believe it or not, I felt that the turning point in this one was Sam Mitchell’s decision to play Jose and TJ together in the third quarter. This combination has been relatively ineffective so far this year but last night the two played off of each other to give Detroit fits. Toronto was matching up with Detroit’s smaller line-up defensively and at the other end, when TJ wasn’t attacking the basket, he was finding Jose for open jump shots. It was great to see the two working in synch, especially considering all the hoopla around the position they share, and their play helped spur the Raptors to a 28 to 16 advantage in the third – a difference that Detroit just couldn’t overcome in the end.
Temperature Check –
Hot – Rasho Nesterovic. Ok, I spoke to Bryan Colangelo last night and he’s agreed to let RaptorsHQ and its readers coach for the rest of the season. Seriously, was re-inserting Rasho into the starting line-up not the most overdue move in Raptor history? Incredible. As I commented yesterday, on one hand it was great to see Rasho go out and there and be such a difference maker at both ends of the court, but on the other, incredibly frustrating from a fan’s perspective. I’m positive this team would have had at least five more wins this year had Rasho started as he simply changes the tone defensively from the tip-off. I saw this time and time again last night as easy baskets that teams have scored early in games in the paint simply weren’t there last night for Detroit.
Cold – Andrea Bargnani. On the flip side of things, Andrea was almost invisible in this one. Will his move back to the bench hurt his confidence? I don’t think so…he hasn’t shown much in terms of consistent confidence as a starter either and he’s just going to have to find a way to contribute in his new role. The team is going to need him for it to be successful in the playoffs and if he doesn't step things up over the next stretch, his off-season regimen will be closely monitored.
Hot – Point Guard Play. As mentioned earlier, I felt that Jose and TJ did a magnificent job orchestrating this win. CB4 wasn’t as dominant as he could have been and while the team finally got some nice offensive contributions from Carlos Delfino, it was the two "1’s" that brought this one home. I thought Jose was the better of the two on the night, (TJ was repeatedly victimized on the defensive end by the bigger and stronger Chauncey Billups) but both hopefully will be integral pieces to a sold winning streak to finish off the season.
Lukewarm – The Pistons. Considering at present these two club look like first round opponents, I’m not sure you can take much away from this game as a Raptor fan concerning Toronto’s chances against the Pistons. Detroit looked tired having played its third game in four nights, and settled for way too many jumpers. During an inbound play Rasheed, instead of throwing in the ball and getting down to business could be seen joking with Sam Mitchell, and Flip Saunders played his bench to a greater degree than he would have had this been mid-April. Tack on Richard Hamilton’s absence and the club didn’t seem complete. That’s not to take anything away from Toronto’s effort, which was perhaps the most sustained one in weeks, but the Pistons just didn’t look like they were taking this one seriously enough.
Lukewarm – Sam Mitchell. Mitchell actually would have been put in the hot section had it not been for his post-game media antics once more. After a big win and in the midst of a ton of drama in Raptorland bearing some discussion, Sam basically took four questions after the match, and then when someone asked about the TJ situation he stated "you know I’m kinda tired…it’s been a long day" and walked off. Add on the fact that it was the lone female reporter asking questions in the scrum that he seemed to bristle at, and once again I had to wonder why this guy doesn’t get reprimanded for his conduct. Coming from someone who constantly talks about "toughing it out" and "not making excuses," I found his statements completely hypocritical; sorry Sam, but talking to the media for 15 minutes post-game is part of your job.
Ok rant done.
Other than that, did anyone else get the feeling that the rotation that played last night was the exact rotation Mitchell’s been wanting to use all season?
Rasho starting, Jose and TJ playing about 28 minutes each, Moon and Delfino playing about 21 each, a limited role for Bargs if he’s struggling offensively, and spot minutes for Jason Kapono.
It was a pretty tidy nine-man rotation and I’m guessing this is the group we’ll see for the rest of the year barring foul trouble or injuries. Sam did a good job with match-ups, taking advantage of players with the hot hand, and allowing Toronto to play the style that suited it best to stay in the game early on.
Moving On –
One Detroit match down, one to go.
The next Detroit game and Sunday’s against New Orleans will mark Toronto’s final two against clubs above .500 so last night’s W was a big one. Now it looks even more possible for Toronto to go on a little run to end the season having won one of the matches that looked like a loss on the schedule.
The Knicks are up next and with both Philly and Washington winning again last night, there’s no time for Toronto to take their foot off the pedal.
There are still lots of questions surrounding this team but for now an unexpected win has glossed things over. Should Toronto nail down the sixth seed, or at least enter the playoffs with some momentum on their side, I’m sure all will be swept under the rug until this off-season.
But as nice as this win was, recent events have admittedly left me wondering if our coach and GM are on the same page in a number of areas, and if TJ starting is more of a band-aid solution than long-term fix.
For now, all’s well that ends well as they say but I’ll be watching these final 12 games under the HQ microscope.