It was all smiles in Raptorland last night as the Dinos, playing with basically 7 players for the bulk of the game, put on an effort for the ages in an unlikely win over the Dallas Mavericks.
It's after midnight, I've got a bad cold, and my flight back to Toronto from Christmas holidays is in about 8 hours.
But I could care less.
I just finished watching the Toronto Raptors take down the Dallas Mavericks, an unlikely event on its own, especially considering it was the Dinos' first win in the big D in 10 tries, but made even more unlikely by the absence of some of the Raps' top guns.
-Still no Peja or Reggie.
And Amir Johnson and Leandro Barbosa playing at much less than optimal levels.
Now granted, the Dallas Mavericks were coming off a big win over the Oklahoma City Thunder the previous night, and were without franchise player Dirk Nowitzki, but down to about 8 healthy bodies, getting a win was a tall order for the Raps as it was.
And that was before Linas Kleiza got ejected early in the second half, and Jerryd Bayless went down late with an ankle injury, having to be helped off the court and to the locker room for X Rays.
By the time I post this we'll probably know the extent of Bayless' injury, but suffice to say that at the time he went down, a lot of Raps' fans probably thought this one was over. The Mavericks had been nipping at the Raptors' heels and got within as few as three points, and seemed poise to win this one out on talent alone. Minus Bayless, and on another night where the team struggled with turnovers (they finished with 17 in the end), there were legitimate questions as to whether the Dinos could execute in the game's final four minutes to gut out the W.
However Leandro Barbosa stepped up his game, drilling clutch shots, finding open men, and along with Toronto's stingy defense (yes, I just wrote that), secured the 84 to 76 win.
There were so many great things in this one, it's hard to know where to start. But I'll begin with the title of the recap, heart, as that's what a big chunk of this win was about.
Undermanned, the Raps just wanted this one more.
They out-rebounded the Mavs, got to the line 22 times as opposed to Dallas' 12, and won nearly all the "hustle categories."
That though by itself wouldn't have been enough , as the Mavericks have the league's second best record for a reason. Gunners like Terry and former All-Stars like Kidd and Butler wouldn't go easily into the night, and this would have certainly been a "moral victory" had the Raptors not locked the Mavericks down on D.
I'd love for someone to throw out a game, but can anyone remember a better defensive effort against a top level club over the past 4, 5 years?
Maybe statistically Toronto's held a team to a lower shooting percentage (although the Mavs hit only 41% of their shots), but it was an awesome sight to see crisp rotations, and the Mavericks forced into a game of long-ball, unable to get anything going to the basket.
Aside from a Jason Terry dunk where "The Jet" blew by Barbosa to find the rim unguarded, the rest of the time, Dallas' players were met with a slew of arms and bodies in close, as Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Joey Dorsey and Julian Wright protected the rim like it was the key to new 5-year billion dollar deals.
And on the perimeter, players like Barbosa, Bayless, and the aforementioned Wright were ball hawks, each with at least 2 steals on the evening.
As a result, the Mavericks were forced into tough shots, particularly ones from long range, and that showed in the end as the Raps won the "points in the paint" battle, 48 to 24. In addition, Toronto's stifling D led to 17 Dallas turnovers of their own, and the Raps used that to their advantage, getting out and running scoring 25 fast break points.
Now many folks probably expect this recap to take on the form of a "see, I told you Andrea Bargnani hurts this team more than helps" tone.
In the same way that it took me 3 years to decide that my expectations for Andrea were too high, I'm not going to use one game as a sample size to decide that he, Calderon, Weems etc are better off sitting permanently on the sidelines. Perhaps with Bargs, this would have been a complete blowout as Toronto did have moments of trouble on offence, and Andrea likely would have helped in that capacity.
I will say though that to even the biggest Andrea fan (or Weems' fan in my case), there was no question tonight that the Dinos simply provided much more defensive resistance than they typically do on a night by night basis. You can go by the box score stats, or use the eye test, but there you have it. Throw out the Dirk piece, this was still a very good offensive team and Toronto made them work for every bucket.
It's unfortunate then that many of the players responsible for said effort, don't get more playing time.
I know this is a big ask of Jay Triano in many ways, considering more minutes for grinders like Wright and Dorsey come at others' expenses, but there's been nothing this year that's shown that this team doesn't perform better when these types play bigger roles, especially on D.
Does this mean I'm advocating 35 minutes a game for Dorsey?
No, but it continues to baffle me as to why it doesn't seem that management on down learns from matches like this.
It was the same last year.
It took nearly a full season before Triano and co. realized something fans had been seeing and dissecting statistically for ages; the team was better with Hedo off the bench, and the Jose-Jack-Turk triangle of death was a disaster at both ends.
That's why as much as I'm now looking forward to seeing this young hungry and gritty Raptors group take the court against the Rockets, their next opponent, I'm extremely curious to see how things shake out when some of Toronto's starters return. There was no question that every player who stepped on that court tonight made huge contributions at both ends, and that just hasn't been the case for many of the absentees, be it a Sonny Weems or Jose Calderon. Whether it was rookie Ed Davis' career night of 17 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks, or DeMar DeRozan's clutch shots down the stretch, this was a complete team victory, the type that made you excited as a fan.
Of course it remains to be seen if this was a one-off "backs against the wall" type performance by the Raps, but my hope is that Triano and co. test this out by doling out similar minutes, at least while others get healthy.
Again, to me, this season should be all about developing young talent, and being able to evaluate what you've got to work with in terms of personnel.
That happened tonight, and while I don't want to overstate one win in a fairly dismal Raptors' season so far, more of these types of games need to happen for this club to move forward in my opinion, regardless if they result in losses, or gutsy wins like this evening.