After reaching what one hopes is rock bottom this season, the Raptors finally won a game and put an end to their losing streak beating the Chicago Bulls 114-94. It was a sight for sore eyes.
Over the past little while all we seem to have been doing at the HQ is breaking down how this team has lost. Whether it was poor PG play, lackluster bench production or an off night for one of Bargnani or Bosh there has always been something to harp on. It’s been a really tough stretch and it has left all of us having more questions than answers.
Last night against the Bulls however, things were pretty simple. After a prolonged absence, last night marked the return of Jose Calderon and for the first time in a long time the Raptors had a full roster ready to rock and roll... and rock and roll they did.
Last night’s Raptors looked absolutely nothing like the team that many of us have watched over the past couple of weeks. The offense ran smoothly, the team showed some much needed grit, and things were just clicking. Finally this team had a full arsenal of weapon and they were not scared to us them.
The return of who Chris Bosh calls "Amigo" was just the lift this team needed. It’s become clear in the past couple weeks that the back-up PG situation for the Raps is currently in shambles and consequently just how important Calderon is to this squad, not only as a floor general but emotionally as well.
As Jack discussed in the broadcast last night Calderon has been chomping at the bit to return and help his teammates out. Jose’s desire to get back and contribute can’t be questioned as he demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his long term health by trying to come back too early against the Celtics. Fortunately though, he stopped trying to be a hero and rested up for this game against Chicago, and what a solid performance it was.
From the opening tip Jose showed almost no rust in his game and when all was said and done he had not only outplayed Derrick Rose, but managed to put up another double double with 23 points and 10 assists in only 29 minutes of action. It wasn’t just the statistics that were impressive however, his presence on the floor just seemed to raise his teammates spirits. The Raptors body language was better and it was blatantly obvious just how happy CB4 was seeing him on the floor.
Even with Calderon back in the saddle it was nice to see that Triano was still willing to play AP at the point. Parker’s ability to step into a less familiar position and yet still perform at a high level needs to be commended. Last night he moved seamlessly from the PG to the off-guard spot and didn’t miss a beat. I fully expect to see Triano continue to ride Parker as hard as he can knowing that the alternatives leave much to be desired.
The other player who just recently returned also had a solid night. Although JO’s stat line leaves much to be desired I was actually quite happy with O’Neal last night. If there is one thing that JO brought to the court it last night it was some much needed toughness and grit. O’Neal was willing to mix it up despite having been severely posterized, stood in to take charges and was always willing to commit the hard foul. Although his inability to stay in the line-up has been hugely detrimental to this team in that Triano has been asked to call upon guys like Voshkul and Humphries more often then one would like, when he is in the game the team seems a little more willing to puff out their chests and mix it up.
Obviously the biggest positive from JO’s absence from the line-up has been Andrea Bargnani absolutely exploding onto the scene. For all the criticism this team has faced as of late, much of it deserved, it has really overshadowed Il Mago’s "appearance" act. It’s now fair to say that Bargnani has arrived. The transformation that has gone on is almost implausible. It really is a situation where a light has gone on in that in the flick of a switch Bargnani has gone from a clumsy, unconfident, offensively challenged first round bust, to a smooth, controlled, uber-confident offensive and defensive weapon.
On many occasions over the past few weeks I have been left wondering "Just who is this guy?" Who replaced the Andrea we know with the Andrea we all wanted? His play as of late has been off the charts. He is supremely confident in his jumper, players are looking for him to create and he is doing a decent job on the glass (always room for improvement). It’s hard to fathom just how rough the past couple weeks would have been had Il Mago not found his game.
This was a solid performance by team in desperate need of a pick-me up. Their ability to not only close the game out, but absolutely manhandle the Bulls in the fourth was not only unexpected but a huge positive. It wasn’t just on the offensive end where things were better either. Defensively the Raps just seemed to play with a renewed vigor as evidenced by the steals total. The Raps managed a whopping 13 steals on this evening, CB4 leading the way with an astonishing 6.
All this being said this was just one game. The Raps are still 11 games under .500 and with much work to be done. The monkey is however off their backs. Having played one of their best games of the year and with the top 8 guys are in uniforms rather than civvies ready to contribute here’s hoping that this team can at least put their good foot forward from here on out.
Up next for the Raps are the Sacramento Kings, who much like the Bulls have a very expensive bench warmer in Kenny Thomas. Can the Raps manage back-to-back wins? If so they will need to focus on these three keys:
1. All Hands on Deck - Last nights win against the Bulls was a full team effort. Outside of the front-line guys the Raps got decent help off the bench from the likes of Joey Graham and Jason Kapono. Getting consistent effort and production off the bench is something that has been gravely missed this season. Despite the poor season the Kings are also a team on the mend and they have players who can fill it up in Martin and Salmons. The bench play of the Kings is one of their strengths with guys like Spencer Hawes, Francisco Garcia and the old wily vet Bobby Jackson coming off the pine. The Raps bench players will have to match Sacramento’s to secure the W.
2. Play With an Edge - Although the win against the Bulls is only one win, the Raptors need to build off it. On a number of occasions the Raps have shown a little bit of fire in their eye, against the Bulls and Celtics in particular, and they need to bring it back to the ACC on Sunday. I will be looking for the Raps to show some attitude from the get go and play a little physical in particular CB4 who will be matched-up against an inexperienced but talented rookie in Jason Thompson. The Kings rookie, like most, has been up and down and it’s up to CB4 to put the rook in his place early. The Raps need to take this game to the Kings.
3. Contain Kevin Martin - Kevin Martin is an offensive talent. He is very good at not only creating his own shot even in limited space, but also gets to the line often. The pressure will be on AP, Graham and Kapono to try and force Martin into some uncomfortable situations resulting in poor shot selection. Fighting through screens and trying to deny Martin the ball have to be priority number on in this game. It’s going to be a tough assignment for AP, even tougher given his new PG duties, so someone else is going to have to blanket this guy for a big chunk of the game. Contain Martin and the Raps should be able to get another much needed W.