With their afternoon victory over the New York Knicks a few hours ago, this is the plateau reached by the Toronto Raptors.
Of course as us fans have been saying for a while now, it would have been nice to hit this plateau oh…about 20 games ago. Now, the team sees itself climbing out of the Eastern Conference basement, a living example of the of the proverbial "too little, too late" expression.
But is that really the case?
I’ve been asked many a time how I feel about this late-season surge and honestly, my attitude has shifted as the wins kept coming.
For instance, after the first 3 consecutive wins, I was not a happy camper.
The team was only hindering its chances at a top 3 draft pick and in addition, was beating up on some of the worst clubs in the league, not exactly much of an indication that this was now somehow a superior club as opposed to earlier in the year.
Even with win number four, it was hardly much to write home about as the Raptors let a slumping Bulls team force overtime in a match that should have been in the bag by the end of the fourth quarter.
However after a hard-fought win over the Orlando Magic, admittedly, my outlook started to change.
A shot at a top 3 pick looked to be dead in the water anyways as the teams in front of Toronto continued to lose, and after such an abysmal season on and off the court, it was nice to see the team playing with confidence and winning.
On top of this, you started seeing subtle signs of progress both at the offensive and defensive ends; what stood out the most, Toronto’s rebounding. They were +71 on the glass over opponents in that stretch and were looking to take that advantage to the Knicks this afternoon in New York.
Things didn’t start off so well.
The Dinos got down by 12 at one point in the first half and looked like they had spent a little too much time out in the city last night. Turnovers abounded, shots were missed, and the Knicks were scoring seemingly at will.
However a different team came out of the locker room in the second half and the Raps fought back to eventually grab the victory. Toronto got great production from four of their five starters, and with a boost off the bench from Graham and Kapono, are headed back to TO to face-off with the Knicks again tomorrow.
This afternoon’s win has left me now squarely in the "this winning streak is a good thing" camp. Yes, this was a win against a fairly terrible Knicks team, however it wasn’t so much the eventual W that has me shifting gears, but the way in which that W was accomplished.
First and foremost, Andrea Bargnani is breaking out.
I know the media and fans have been saying that since January now, but I don’t think people are fully aware of how unstoppable he’s becoming. In fact, over the past few games it’s been Andrea that’s looked like the go-to guy and not Chris Bosh. He is scoring from inside and out, looking for mismatches, attacking the rim, blocking shots, and even doing a better job on the glass. Watching him today made me feel good about urging patience with the big rook a few years back when people were calling him a bust. He’s taken a little longer than expected, but I don’t think you can argue that the results haven’t been worth the wait.
The interesting thing in conjunction with Andrea’s recent play is that Bosh is playing better as well. Suddenly he has double-doubles in 10 of the last 13 games and continues to be extremely efficient as a scorer. Teams now can’t simply double Bosh as Andrea is not just hanging around the perimeter looking for his shot. He’s slashing to the hoop, posting up, and even throwing in a turn-around jumper here and there.
I think the best example however of just how far Bargs has come, and just how high of an upside he has, was demonstrated by a single play today with about 7 minutes left in the game. Toronto was on the break and the team found a streaking Bargnani at about the 3-point line. All in one motion Bargs caught the pass and went right to the hoop. He failed to score or draw the foul, but he immediately rebounded his miss and kicked it back out for an easy open look.
The whole sequence made me stop Twittering and focus on the replay. Remember, this is a 7-footer running the court here. The fact that he even caught the pass, let alone got his footing down and kept going to the hoop without traveling, was astounding. Then to have the presence to try and draw the foul, and then save the ball and find an open man, now that’s something VERY few players in the NBA can do. I had to look again in fact because the whole sequence seemed to have been executed by a 6-6 wing, not a 7-foot center.
The Knicks had no answer for him all afternoon.
And when he or Bosh weren’t scoring, Shawn Marion was tipping in misses and causing havoc, or Jose Calderon was bombing from outside.
In fact I’d be doing a huge disservice not to elaborate on both of the latter because make no mistake, their play over the last six games is another huge reason for Toronto’s surge. To that point, today’s match not only put an "approved" stamp on Andrea’s breakout, but also on Colangelo bringing Shawn Marion back if possible. Marion’s really starting to hit his stride in a Raps uniform (he had another double-double with 12 and 13 today) and his improvement over Jamario Moon at the 3 spot is monumental.
Game after game that I’ve watched over the past few weeks just reaffirms this as their are no ill-advised jumpers, no falling head-fake fouls, no excessive 3’s (I think he’s taken 8 in his 19 games with the Raps) and most importantly, his ability to rebound the ball makes him a perfect fit next to the softer rebounding Bargnani.
Combined with a healthy Jose Calderon, and a more able bench group thanks to Pops Mensah-Bonsu, and I do believe that Toronto has the start of something here.
Is this a 50-win team?
In fact even with the club’s newfound confidence I think through a full season it would be more likely to match last year’s 41 victories.
But that would indeed make it a playoff club.
That’s why I’m not sure why the media and fans keep saying "where was this all season."
Where was this all season?
Well some of it was in Miami, some of it was still developing, some of it wasn’t healthy, and some of it was languishing in the D League for some reason.
Get the idea?
This is not the same team.
Oh there are still too many jumpers and some porous perimeter defence. But the way this club moves the ball on offense, the way it rebounds the basketball, the way it guards against dribble penetration and as a result, the confidence it now carries itself with, are all quite different than even two months ago.
And the result is the longest winning streak since its Atlantic Division championship team won six in a row in April 2007.
Again, an example to really illustrate this change in execution.
In the second quarter at one point when Toronto was starting to close the gap, Roko Ukic was running the offence. He had poked and prodded the defense, even pulling a Steve Nash and circling back out from under the hoop, and yet there was nothing open. So, instead of forcing things, or giving the ball to Bosh so he could force a one-on-one situation, the ball swung to Bargs, who in turn attacked the basket causing the Knicks’ defence to shift. While there was nothing there for Andrea, he found an open Bosh who upon drawing the rushing defence, threw a bullet pass across to a wide open Jason Kapono, who banged down the 3-pointer.
John Wooden couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
It’s that type of execution that fans need to witness again tomorrow at the Air Canada Center with the Knicks back up to bat.
I’m not sure there’s any point in going into three keys as the same ones for today are going to hold true. If the Raptors can again win the battle of the boards (they ended up plus 3 in that regard after being down badly in the first half), limit the Knicks 3-point shooting again (New York hit on only 4 of 18 this afternoon), and do a better job limiting Chris Duhon’s dribble penetration, this should make for win number 31, and seven in a row.
With the Bulls edging out the Nets about an hour ago, this new Raptor squad’s playoff chances are pretty much closed even though Detroit continues to lose. That’s fine by me as I’d now just like to see this club continue to build on the chemistry it’s starting to develop. Triano is giving his big 4 lots of run, and doing a nice job of mixing in a bit of Graham, Roko, Pops, and even less Kapono to the mix.
Yes, it’s only April 4th, but admittedly after today’s win, I couldn’t help but think what a shot-creating 2 like Jamal Crawford would look like next to Calderon, Marion, Bosh and Bargs.
Too little too late?
Nope, suddenly anxious for July 1st.