New year, new team, new haircut, new injuries?
In our first game of 2009, the Raptors resolved to put the same kind of hurt they laid on New Jersey, what seems like a year ago, on the Rockets.
By taking it defensively to the group from Houston, the Raptors established that they were not going to win games with an overpowering offense. Even with such a large margin of victory last night, the Raptors did not break 100 points. Instead, the Raptors put the clamp down on the defensive end by holding the Rockets to just 73 points for the game. Shooting at 34%, Houston was simply having trouble establishing their offensive flow. With lots of strips from the wings, boxing out, and some inspired, hard physical play from players like Jake Voskuhl and Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors couldn't have played tougher.
Speaking of Bargnani, he managed to put together another good game by keeping calm in situations and believing in himself throughout the game. By taking initiative to stay in the game after his third foul, Bargnani made up for the absence of Jermaine O'Neal by going toe to toe with Yao Ming, and eclipsing the great wall with an even greater performance. And while Bargnani took a lot of beatings from the refs, he kept working Yao Ming throughout the game and was helped out by Voskuhl and Humphries who took turns pinning Yao away from the basket.
I for one, was glad to see Bargnani regain his form. I've resisted ragging on Bargnani for most of this year, as he's been yanked around like a yo-yo instead of having a defined role that was the stated mission of the staff in the beginning of the year. As of late, he seems to be finding the elusive comfort zone that he had earlier on in the year, and it is only very recently that we've seen a return to inspired defense and effective decision-making on the offensive end for our big Italian center.
And for one night at least, both Roko Ukic and Will Solomon looked like they belong in the NBA as the filled in admirably for Jose Calderon when he went down with another hamstring pull.
Nevertheless, the Raptors got this win because the wings did not play like a disjointed group. Anthony Parker found a way to contribute with eight rebounds, despite being unable to hit from long range. Joey Graham, with ten points and three offensive rebounds, used his size to abuse the Rockets, and keep the Raptors from losing ground to Ron Artest. When Ron Artest took the ball to the inside, the Raptors met him by drawing fouls and making his night difficult. In fact, the Raptors held the Rockets starting wings and Ron Artest to a horrid 6-for-26 shooting night.
However, I just can't believe the talk in the Raptors' Post Up after the game. Suddenly, because of one game, Will Solomon has earned his stripes as a starter. At the end of the day, this is one game which is simply an anomaly within the schedule. Houston is definitely no pushover, but the Raptors simply took full advantage of a team out of sync. T-Mac for one, was not getting many touches throughout the game, and the spacing on the floor was simply horrible. For one game, the Raptors took advantage of the situation, but we can't get ahead of ourselves. We are still relying on players that are, and have been largely inconsistent.
Honestly, can we rely on Will Solomon to put up eight points and seven assists on a consistent basis? Could we hope to have Jamario Moon to contribute seven points and two assists? Yes, last night's win was a great game of team work, but it will take more than one game to figure out if the Raptors have turned the corner.
And just listening to how dejected both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were after the game showed that not all is right in Rocket land. After a fast start to this year, we're starting to see indications of the stress of having players such as Ron Artest and Rafer Alston on your team. When the Rockets decided to be flat footed and pack it in, the game got away and the Raptors capitalized on 22 turnovers.
But without a doubt, the most troubling aspect of last night's game is that the Raptors are down two of their big three. With Jermaine O'Neal and Jose Calderon both nursing injuries, the Raptors managed to stave off the Rockets for one night, but against Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, the Raptors will find themselves against a much stronger test on Sunday.
1) Overcome Hurt -
So people say Will Solomon has turned the corner. If Jose Calderon misses this next game, he'll have ample chance to show his colours. And heck, Roko Ukic will finally get that burn that we at the Raptors HQ have been screaming for. However, the biggest thing we will have to look for, is Andrea Bargnani to just continue his play in the absence of Jermaine O'Neal. I don't see how he will assigned to defend Dwight Howard in Sunday's match up, as Voskuhl, Bosh, and Humphries all are more well suited to try and keep the big man-child on the perimeter. But Bargnani must continue to be an effective contributor to the Raptors if they hope to pull out a win with some defense and efficient offensive production. It is his production that allows the Raptors to open up the interior of their opponents, and allows for a beautiful inside-outside game that we saw for much of Friday's contest.
2) Contain Jameer Nelson -
Last year, the Raptors in regular season home games managed to completely dismantle the Magic. It was a thing of beauty to watch.
I should know. I was lucky enough to be there for all of them.
What changed between regular season play and the playoffs? The Raptors allowed Jameer Nelson to completely outwork them on the floor. Against the Magic, the Raptors will have to protect the paint not only from Howard, but from the dribble penetration of guys like Jameer Nelson. If they do that, we may be able to see yet another rout of a very good team on Sunday.
3) Build -
Chris Bosh's comments the other day about making the pieces the Raptors have at the moment work, is precisely what we need from our star player. We simply cannot allow the team to think reinforcements are coming because they simply aren't until Colangelo decides to pull the trigger. Perhaps most importantly is the fact that the Raptors will increase their trade value if they continue to play with the energy and effort we saw at last night's game. Yes, even we at the HQ have been talking about change, but building on past games and working to get momentum are important steps towards the growth of the Raptors as an organization. After all, no matter what kind of player Bryan Colangelo brings to the Raptors, the Raptors need to have the chemistry to overcome a change of personnel.
At the end of the day, I fully expect the Raptors to challenge the Magic in spite of their injuries. Last year, the Raptors managed to get the better of the Magic in three out of four home games in both the regular and post season, so I'd expect nothing less than an all-star performance from Chris Bosh. We've seen Bosh go off for great career games against the Magic before as playing Dwight Howard just seems to bring out the best in him. And while we've seen Bosh regain some of his effectiveness from earlier in the year, he'll have to put up a monster game to slay the monster man-child of Orlando.
But most importantly, last night's win can't be a once-in-a-month kind of effort. The Raptors simply have to keep this effort up if they hope to regain the ground they lost in December, and it's gotta continue on to game two of 2009.