One of the problems for the Toronto Raptors this season has been play at the point.
Another has been bench play, specifically in terms of getting an instant offensive boost.
For one game last night both were solved as Roko Ukic dropped 22 points on the San Antonio Spurs off the bench, including an incredible running lay-up with seconds to go to clinch a 91 to 89 win for the Dinos.
What a game.
While I was 15 times as excited to see Duke vs. North Carolina than I was to see Toronto take on a San Antonio team that had won 11 of 13, this match proved to provide the greater drama of the two as the match went down to the final seconds.
And somehow it was TO that pulled things out, ending their stretch of games before the NBA All-Star break with two consecutive wins, both hard-fought fights to the finish.
Raptors fans, particularly this season, have become used to disappointment and heartbreak and yet last night it was the Raptors who got the breaks in the end. Apart from Tony Parker missing the game-tying jumper as time was about to expire, San Antonio also missed some easy looks, bricked a few key free-throws, miscommunicated on some pick and roll situations, and just couldn’t quite execute in key situations.
On the Toronto side, the team put on its most focused display in weeks.
For those viewers who were able to take advantage of viewing the game via several online feeds or had TSN2, you saw a Raptors club that fought and clawed the entire match. They refused to bend or break and even without Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon or Joey Graham (who left in the first quarter with a bruised right shin), the club banded together to keep things close until the game’s final minutes.
And then it was Roko time.
First the long-range bomb to get the club within 1, and then after a Raptors’ defensive stop, the spinning drive to the basket for the lead, which then resulted in the most awkward chest bump of all time between Ukic and Kapono, which seemed to play out like this:
"Hey, I scored the winner, should I do a chest bump?"
"Yes, yes I should!"
"There’s Jason – I think I’ll bump him!"
The hope of course is that the play of Roko tonight was a great example of light at the end of the tunnel for a team that has been incredibly disappointing this season. Toronto has been in desperate need of someone who can create off the dribble and get to the rim and perhaps this is a sign of things to come from the young point. I’m not expecting Ukic to continue to carry Toronto like he did tonight but you can see that his shooting stroke has already improved by leaps and bounds thanks to the amount of practice time he’s put in.
In fact while watching the game with Howland and Vicious D, I noted that in many ways
Ukic reminds me of the player he was matched up with last night, Tony Parker, when Parker first came into the league. Parker had a great handle, was incredibly adept at getting to the rim, but was a terrible shooter. However after developing a deadly floater, and re-making his set shot, suddenly he started to present a real match-up problem for opponents who could no longer sag off of him.
We’ve seen the floater from Ukic for some time now, and with his long-distance shooting improving, the former Rob Babcock selection appears to be well on his way.
And while we’re talking Roko, how about a bit of praise for the job Jay Triano did last night?
It was Jay who re-inserted Ukic during crunch time to enable him to hit those two big shots, deciding to go with the hot hand even though it meant removing Jamario Moon, who played his best all-around game in quite some time.
For all the Moon haters out there, this game was a perfect representation of the role I envision him to have in the future, hopefully with the Raptors. 33 minutes is a bit on the high side but Jamario attempted only seven shots hitting three of them (with the bulk of his shots coming within the flow of the offense), had nine rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block. He was also locked in defensively, something that was paramount for a team that Anthony Parker joked resembled an AAU squad. Toronto was essentially down to eight players and with Jason Kapono into the starting line-up and Joey unable to play after the first quarter, it meant essentially using six guys with a little Jake Voskuhl mixed in.
Yet with limited options, Toronto came out with energy from the tip-off, something Howland touched on in his preview yesterday as being key to getting a W. The Raps stayed aggressive throughout at both ends of the court and while they still needed to rely on some huge jump shots down the stretch to keep things close, the team showed just what 48 minutes of effort can do. So often this season we’ve seen players on Toronto step outside of their roles to try do too much but last night the shooters shot the ball (Kapono to the tune of 21 points), defenders got stops (O’Neal with six blocks), and the Raps in total exuded the sort of all-around play that fans wish they could see every night.
Now the club has a chance to rest its beat-up cast with the team off until next Wednesday when they take on the Cavs.
With teams like Charlotte, Milwaukee and Indiana winning last night TO didn’t gain any ground in the standings but this victory has to be a huge confidence boost for a club that even after the win in Minnesota, seemed to be spiraling down the drain.
Playoffs or no playoffs it’s crucial to continue to develop the players that Toronto has and the play of Ukic last night, Graham recently, and even Andrea (who was had ice in his veins down the stretch last night after a tough shooting performance early on) are huge going forward.
The trade deadline is less than a week away and I doubt we’ll see any movement from Bryan Colangelo’s crew.
But I’m not sure that’s such a big deal considering where Toronto currently sits. Is one trade really going to make that much of a difference for a 21 win team?
And how hard is it to even accurately assess this roster considering the span of injuries the Dinos have had to deal with? The last thing I want to see as a Raptors’ fan is Colangelo to pull the trigger on something just because he feels he needs to try and save the season.
The season, barring a miraculous winning streak, is out the window playoffs-wise.
However if Toronto can continue to win games like last night’s and see the growth of various individual pieces, something that was paramount to start the season considering the club’s lack of depth, then perhaps as fans we’ll look back at this time next year and realize that the struggles of this season were unfortunately necessary for the club’s long-term growth.