It's pretty hard as a fan of the Toronto Raptors not be be satisfied with last night's 108 to 103 win over the New York Knicks.
First, it gave Toronto a .500 record in pre-season. No, not exactly the Larry O'Brien trophy, but some necessary confidence-building victories.
Second, the win was over the New York Knicks, a team they play to open the season next Wednesday and a club they'll likely be fighting with for a playoff spot. (Yes I said playoffs, and I'll explain why in a minute.)
Third, this was in my books the team's most complete effort of the pre-season. There wasn't a single Raptor who failed to bring it and this was the best the club's looked so far.
And finally, the game was possibly Toronto's most exciting from a viewing perspective this pre-season, perfect as a showcase considering the game was played before some rabid basketball fans at Montreal's Bell Centre.
A win-win situation all around I'd say.
There are still some areas of concern, especially on D where far too frequently back-door cuts were left unguarded, but generally this looked like a team ready to start the season.
Unlike say the New York Knicks.
I know Danilo Gallinari wasn't playing, and neither was Toney Douglas, but woah...not sure how all these "experts" are seeing a playoff team from this group.
(Side bar - in fact, having now watched many teams that are supposed to be better than the Raptors in the East this pre-season, Indiana, New Jersey, Philly, New York etc, I'm not sure this won't be another year of dogfights for the 8th and final playoff spot. I've got Miami, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago and Milwaukee as locks, not necessarily in that order, but after that? Are any of these other clubs actually that good?)
I mean look at the Knicks.
No depth, some pretty suspect NBA talent after the starting core, and very little in the way of defense or rebounding. One of our readers commented that watching the Knicks reminded him of the Raptors in fact during part of the Babcock era; essentially Chris Bosh and that was it and I had similar thoughts as only Amar'e Stoudemire really stood out last night. The rest of the team is a bit of a strange collection of projects like Anthony Randolph, shots in the dark like Timofey Mozgoz, and inefficient types like Wilson Chandler. If the Raptors put together collective efforts this season much like they did last night, I'm going to say that they'll finish with a better record than New York.
And really, that's what this pre-season has shown me.
There's not much "upper-tier talent" on this Raptors squad, but there's some great chemistry and depth, and if the team can put that together as a complete package for 48 minutes every night, they'll be quite competitive.
Part of this is players knowing their roles, and I think that was my favourite part about last night.
Kleiza and Bargnani were the offensive aggressors for the starters yet neither forced things. 1 rebound from Andrea is pathetic, yes ha ha, but outside of that I really like his game last night and he had the team's best +/- when all was said and done.
DeMar DeRozan looks more and more comfortable going to the rim, especially in traffic, a great sign despite the fact that he was rewarded for his fervor with a dislocated finger.
Even David Andersen got in on the action, dominating on offense and even executing a perfect Aussie rendition of the "Dream Shake!"
And there was Reggie Evans nearly outrebounding the entire Knicks frontcourt himself (he had 11 boards, Mozgov, Stoudemire and Chandler had a combined 12), making sure the offence moved (he had 3 assists), and all the while taking attempting only one field goal.
It was a joy to behold and even the bench got in on the act, right down to guys like Julian Wright (who threw down some nasty dunks in garbage time) and Joey Dorsey (2 points, 3 assists, a block, a steal and 4 rebounds in 12 minutes of action.)
Most importantly though in my books, Jose Calderon looked like an NBA player again.
Actually, he looked better than Jack on the night as he finished with 11 points, 6 assists and 2 steals in only 16 minutes, but I'm hoping Jay Triano keeps him on this second unit. Surrounded by athletic, scoring types such as Weems and Barbosa, things seemed to open up for Jose and suddenly he was making bursts to the rim, and finding guys like Amir Johnson for open dunks in transition. I can't overstate how important a top-performing Calderon is to this team so again, last night was a sight for sore eyes.
The final thing I want to touch on here is the coaching situation...
...which I think has been great.
Triano's called out his troops, made changes when he's thought things haven't been working, and demanded accountability, another sight for sore eyes.
The team just looks more cohesive and prepared then they did last year, and I thought a great example of this was Solomon Alabi's performance in the game's final minute.
Alabi struggled box score wise (2 points, 2 fouls, 2 turnovers, -10 in about 3 minutes) but watching him calmly and effectively help the Raps break the Knicks' late-game full-court press made me nod my head. It was a subtle thing, but a sign of a well-coached team whose lessons and schemes had been learned from players 1 and 5 to 10 and 15.
So final pre-season thoughts?
In all honesty the team played better overall than I expected.
They struggled against expected upper echelon clubs like Chicago and Boston, yet beat and beat up on lesser foes such as Phoenix and New York.
What does that mean come regular season?
It's hard to say, but there were enough positive signs in the last few games for me to think that this team won't be New Jersey level bad this coming year.
There will be many nights where they struggle against simply more talented teams, but through most of the pre-season I saw a much more cohesive group take the court then the last two years, and that should go a long way towards future success, especially once management bolsters the club's talent.
But enough pre-season talk...
...let's get the real season under way...