March 22, 2007

Statement Game

Take a good look at that picture - Chris Bosh actually looks like a dinosaur! He is a true Raptor. And he was dynamite last night against the Orlando Magic, thoroughly outplaying his all-star counterpart Dwight Howard.

It was a match up of two all-star big men - with nicknames that I love. CB4 against The Great Dwight Hope. When it comes to nicknames, I've got to go with Howard's, but when it comes to game, I'm with Bosh everyday of the week.

I'm not too sure where The Great Dwight Hope ranks on my favourite nicknames list, but it's up there. I do, however, know what comes in first on my least favourite nicknames list - The Big Fundamental. That's Tim Duncan's nickname. Amazingly, the nickname actually works - he really is The Big Fundamental. It's just so boring. Just like Duncan's game, I guess. But it's still the worst nickname ever.

Although the Raptors were facing an Orlando team with disappointing 31-37 record, this was, in fact, a statement game. My friends, I have bad news. The Raptors have been contaminated. The injury bug the Maple Leafs have suffered from all hockey season has been contracted by the Toronto Raptors. I can't even call this a bug anymore. It's a plague. The MLSE Injury Plague. It's wreaked havoc on the Raptors and Leafs all year long, and it struck mercilessly Tuesday night.

Word dropped Wednesday afternoon that Andrea Bargnani had emergency appendectomy surgery late Tuesday night. Out two to four weeks, at least. Big Rook, as he is so affectionately called by his teammates, will be sorely missed.

That left the Raptors without the services of Il Mago, Anthony Parker, and Jose Calderon for last night's game against Orlando. That's one starter (AP), and the top two guys off the bench. Oh, and Bargnani is a candidate for Rookie Of The Year, and should deservedly win it. This isn't good news. Not now, a month before the playoffs and at a time the Raptors need all hands on deck to secure their first division title in franchise history.

Wasn't it just yesterday the Raptors played their first game at the Skydome? They grow up so fast, these sports teams...

Back to reality - the Raps haven't exactly been tearing it up since the All-Star break. They've been inconsistent in all areas of the game and have just been blown out of the water in the rebounding department as of late. After getting beaten soundly by the Rockets and Knicks on the weekend, questions have arisen as to whether CB4 is running out of gas and whether the Raptors will be able to close out the division. Are they looking through their rear view at the Nets and Knicks? Or will they be able to show killer instinct and run away with a division they should win?

Chris Bosh answered those questions tonight with a dominating performance. And he was helped along the way by TJ Ford. Guys are going to have to step up in the absence of Calderon, Parker and now Bargnani, but it's going to come down to the team's best players, Bosh and Ford, to lead the way, and they certainly did last night.

Kris Humphries, Mo Pete, Juan Dixon and Joey Graham are all going to see increased minutes due to all the injuries. Humphries has been good off the bench this year and I think he deserves some more playing time. He can run the floor, something Hoffa could never really do. TJ Ford loves to make late passes when nobody is expecting it, and I've seen Humphries catch the ball and take it to the rim. If that were Hoffa, Ford's pass would probably hit him in the head. I still can't believe the Utah Jazz traded Kris Humphries for Rafael Araujo. Idiots.

Graham and Mo Pete really need to step it up. Mo Pete has seen his minutes go down significantly since the arrival of Juan Dixon, and it's been the right decision. MP3 - another weak, weak nickname - isn't playing with a lot of confidence right now and needs to get into a rhythm down the stretch, especially in the absence of Parker. Mo Pete's in a funk right now and although he probably will leave as a free agent this summer, he needs to finish the season with some "umph" so he can sign a big money contract in the off-season.

Speaking of Anthony Parker, this guy has just been phenomenal. I think with all the injuries - especially the big one to CB4 at the start of the year - Parker has really solidified himself as a marquee player on this team. He's been starting all year and deservedly so. He's better than Mo Pete. He's a tremendous defender and great from beyond the arc. He brings it every night and it's his consistency that keeps him in the lineup. As well as Bosh, Ford, and Bargnani have played all year, when it comes time to pick a Raptors MVP, I think Anthony Parker seriously deserves some consideration.

And how about the trade that brought in Juan Dixon? Bryan Colangelo, you've truly outdone yourself this time. High Five!

What a trade. Honestly, Colangelo for Prime Minister. He fixed the mess known as the Toronto Raptors, people. In only one year! I don't think the magnitude of this accomplishment is truly being appreciated. If this guy can fix the Raptors I see no reason as to why he cannot lead our country.

Fred Jones who? Dixon has fit into this team right from the start and it's like he's been a Raptor all season. He's shooting almost 50% from the floor in his new Raptors uniform, and has hit some big shots in a number of games. When Calderon went down and Darrick Martin was in-active, Dixon even logged minutes at the point. He's versatile and a solid option off the bench. The Raptors are going to need his production even more now that Bargnani is out.

As for Joey Graham, it seems as though he is still an enigma. Doug Smith says it best - you just don't know which Joey you're going to get on any given night, Good Joey or Bad Joey. He's so athletic and everyone can see all the potential, but he just hasn't put it all together yet. Hopefully increased minutes in important games down the stretch will help him out.

The Raptors bench has been it's strongest element all year. This team is leading their division because they are able to score. They just have too many options. But, like any team, they have their weaknesses. Glaring weaknesses. Ok, really glaring weaknesses. The Toronto Raptors can't rebound. Well, they can some nights, but most of the time, they can't. I know, it's a problem...but they can shoot the ball really well!

Now that the injury plague has spread to the Raptors, guys have to step up. It's simple. Just like guys did for the Maple Leafs. It's the nature of sports. However, it will still come down to Chris Bosh and TJ Ford. These guys are going to play more minutes too, and if last night was any indication, the Raptors will be alright.

Bosh had a double-double in the first half and Ford racked up another 12 assists. After struggling for while there after his foot injury, TJ Ford has gotten an emission test or something, because he's running great right now. His dribble-drive, although erratic and out of control at times, is really breaking down defenses and Ford is finding the open man for the open shot. He plays the point like a point guard should, and when he's running like this he's fun to watch.

As for Bargnani, I'm kind of worried about him. His injury conjures up memories of Alex Rios, circa 2006. Rios was having a breakout campaign for the Jays and finally hitting for power before a freak staph infection caused him to miss a month of action. He came back in August and only hit two home runs the rest of the year. His average also plummeted around 15 to 20 points. He lost his mojo.

Andrea Bargnani, over the last two months, certainly has had his mojo going. He was just getting more and more confident with each and every game. I'm beginning to fall in love with the lanky Italian's sweet stroke - those deep three ball's are a beauty. I'm hoping the time off won't mess with his head, like it did to Alex Rios. The Raptors need Il Mago to return to the lineup in the form he's displayed in what has been a marvellous rookie season. Get well soon, Andrea.

Back to last night. After knocking the Magic out of Orlando, the Raptors have a six game lead atop the Atlantic Division. Their magic number sits at nine. Although they're banged up, and are a young team heading down the stretch run, they will get the job done. I know it's a little early, but I'm going to make like Chuck Swirsky and bring out the salami and cheese, because this division race is over mama! The Raptors will be the 2006-2007 Atlantic Division Champions.

There will be playoff basketball come April. Chris Bosh and TJ Ford will lead the way.

It's guaranteed.

Goodnight, Toronto...