How do you wash the stink of scandal?
Just win, baby.
In perhaps one of the best offensive showings of the year, the Raptors did just enough to hold off a late charge from the Bucks. Six players scored in double figures, including all five starters. The Raptors managed to score 65 points by the half and ran the score up to 94 points by the end of the 3rd.
And they needed every single point that they could get.
The Bucks in the end, attempted to just bomb the lights out with 3 pointer after 3 pointer. In fact, all 3 pointers were scored from the Bucks' bench, and none of the shooters scored fewer than two. Charlie Bell, Keith Boggans, Joe Alexander, and Raptor-killer Damon Jones combined for 13-for-23 shooting (56.5%) from beyond the arc. Without getting much production from recently-hot, former-Raptor Charlie Villanueva, the Bucks had to rely on their bench to pick up the slack. And without any defense for the vast majority of the game, the Raptors simply ran over the Bucks for 3 quarters with some accurate 3-point shooting of their own and drives to the basket.
The Raptors started off with copious amounts of aggressive Jose Calderon. Keying some fast breaks off of Bucks turnovers, Calderon looked to push the ball up to his wings for easy transition baskets. He also looked to attack the basket aggressively in half court sets. For one day at least, Calderon looked like he was clicking with everyone and his shot was on mark like we haven't seen for a year. By racking up 17 points and 7 assists at half time, Calderon showed the importance of having him healthy to start next year. He's also what made people like Chris Bosh score an efficient and quiet 18 without anyone the wiser. In fact, I had to double check the stats to make sure Chris Bosh registered a double-double.
And while we may not know if Shawn Marion will be back next year, it's heartwarming to see that there's some chemistry finally developing between Marion and his teammates. On one particular play in the 3rd, Marion managed to pin his smaller man away from the basket, and Calderon threw a perfect lob pass that allowed Marion to make an easy alley-oop lay-in plus the foul. Yes, it's been a while in the making, but seeing Calderon and Marion hook up for that pass makes me wonder about the possibilities if Calderon has more time playing with additional athletic wings. We've criticized his inability to throw accurate alley-oop passes, but to be fair, he hasn't exactly had a wealth of targets to hit in the past few years.
But in my mind, the best player of the night had to be Andrea Bargnani.
People will look at his stats and may not be impressed. His shooting was not entirely accurate and his rebound numbers may seem low (only 2 registered), but to watch the game told a different story. For one thing, Bargnani managed to disrupt the Bucks all night on the offensive glass. It didn't show up in his stat line, but he managed to knock the ball off of Bucks players several times and gave the Raptors a few extra possessions. He was also one of the few players who attempted to attack the Bucks' interior all night. After hoisting up a quick 3 to start the game, Bargnani decided to go deep in the post with his next two moves, which fundamentally changed the way the Raptors attacked the Bucks for the rest of the game.
Then, there was that strange 3rd quarter.
In the span of a few seconds, Bargnani managed to pick up a couple of fouls due to questionable calls. First with a blown call on Bargnani's aggressive drive to the basket as Bargs was called for the offensive foul even though his man was in the restricted area, and moments later calling him for a foul on a clean block. With the same ref crew that managed the horrible loss in Milwaukee earlier in the year, the Raptors had to be wary of a repeat performance. Luckily, Bargnani made it a moot point by using the calls to fuel his offense. He went to work and made a 3 pointer and continued to drive the basket to the hole.
So in a battle of wills between Andrea and the refs, Bargnani just would not be denied.
Unfortunately, Milwaukee's 3-point shooting started to become a factor in the 3rd as the Bucks started to chip into the Raptor lead. But with Jason Kapono giving the Raptors some much needed scoring punch off the bench, the Raptors continued to make it difficult for the Bucks to cut into the lead.
In the fourth, the Raptors just merely scored enough to make sure that the Bucks could not get closer than arm's length of the Raptors. Key baskets from Kapono, Bargnani and Calderon sealed the game.
In the end, I was pretty satisfied watching the Raptors show a few new wrinkles. In the tail end of a long season, we've been begging for signs that this Raptors team has some kind of foundation to build on for next year. We continue to see a maturation in Bargnani's play, we see that Jose Calderon's recent improved play has meant that injuries have been a huge factor throughout the year, and that the rest of the team can perform in a support role as long as there are specific upgrades in the off season.
One additional thing I have noticed is that Joey Graham's productivity has dropped off quite a bit since the Marion trade. Last night was yet another re-emergence of "Bad Joey" after about two months of "Good Joey" basketball. You get the feeling that Graham has been trying too hard to prove that he deserves the same amount of court time as Shawn Marion and it makes me question his psyche going on into next year. I'd much rather sign Pops Mensah-Bonsu and be done with Joey Graham at this point. It's not worth it if Graham can only produce when there is no pressure on him to succeed.
It may have taken 71 games, but I finally feel like we are starting to get some answers about the direction that the Raptors must take in the off season.
At the very least, that makes the final 11 games interesting.