January 24, 2008

Fantastic Finishes

The Toronto Raptors wanted to beat the Boston Celtics last night. They needed to beat the Celtics last night. Thanks to a huge come-from-behind fourth quarter, and some "Onions baby, onions!" courtesy of Jose Calderon, beat the Celtics the Raptors finally did.

As much as Sam Mitchell tried to downplay the importance of last night's tilt, he knew it was a big game. Look at that picture, it's all the proof you need. That's a picture of a coach who wanted it bad and who is as intense as they come. That's why I love Sam.

Why'd the Raps need this win, you ask? Because it was their fourth and final meeting with the dominant Celtics. After losing a heart breaker in overtime the first time out against Boston, the Celts turned it up a notch and spanked the Raptors in their next two meetings. Boston, whom I predicted, like Doug Smith, to struggle to make the playoffs, are good. Alright, they are very good. Alright, they are freakin' fantastic and have the division title all but locked up. I figured there wasn't going to be much sharing of the rock in Beantown and, along with that, some bruised egos. But that hasn't turned out to be the case. I was wrong. Really, really wrong. The Celts are off the charts, and are even getting production beyond the Big Three, from jobbers like Eddie House and Rajon Rondo.

I've clearly lost my train of thought. The Raptors needed the win over Boston to prove to themselves that they could play with the best of the best. They measured up last night, especially in the final stanza.

For the Celtics it was only their seventh loss of the season, and only their fourth defeat on their home court. It was also their first loss to a divisional opponent. If the Raps hadn't beaten the Celts last night, I think Boston would have swept the entire division. God knows Toronto is the only other decent team in the putrid Atlantic Division.

I'll be honest, I didn't watch most of the ball game. I was scared the Raps were in for more poundage, and I didn't need to see that again. I chose, instead, to watch the Leafs game. Yes, that does, officially, make me an idiot. But I did catch most of the fourth quarter, when I tuned in and saw that it was actually a ball game, and not a massacre.

Toronto went into the fourth trailing by seven, but they didn't quit. It also helped that they were on fire from beyond the arc all night, hitting 15 three-balls in the contest, including three in the final 15 minutes. Carlos Delfino deserves some props for his performance last night. He was money from deep (Grange picked a beauty of a name for his blog), going 5-for-5.

The catalysts of the comeback were, of course, Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon. CB4 dropped 10 in the final frame but it was Calderon who provided the heroics late. He hit two free throws with 30 seconds left to give the Raps a one-point lead, 111-110, which they squandered. With 14 ticks left on the clock, Calderon drove to the hoop off a Bosh screen for a layup. Bucket. And the foul! That's when Chuck Swirsky dropped the onions. It was a huge three-point-play. The Celtics had last shot, and even got off two attempts because the Raptors can't rebound for their lives, but it wasn't to be. It was the Raptors night.

In the holy crap department, Andrea Bargnani was spotted yesterday actually contributing while on the court. The dude's been missing of late, but he finally had a game. He was due. Part of the reason I haven't written about the Raptors in a while is because of Bargnani's struggles. His regression troubles me deeply. My expectations were, as I have come to realize, way too high for him this year.

Last night, however, he dropped 20 on 50% shooting and racked up seven assists. Most astonishing of all, he grabbed seven rebounds! For Andrea, that's about three games worth. We all know Sucky Soph is struggling mightily (last year he was "Big Rook," so this year he is "Sucky Soph"), but it was great to see the Bargnani of old chip in last night. He's still hella young, and we have to be patient with him. The fans in this city are way too quick to turn on young players (see: Nik Antropov) and while Brandon Roy definitely seems like the better player right now - and he is - Bargnani still has crazy upside.

Also in the holy crap department, why are the Raptors allergic to rebounding? They were clobbered again on the boards last night, and only their hot shooting was able to save their collective behinds. It's not the 39-29 advantage the Celtics had on the boards that is frightening; it's the 16-4 advantage Boston had on the offensive glass that blows my mind. 16-4! Sixteen offensive rebounds is about 13 too many. Ray Allen had as many offensive rebounds as the entire Raptors team. Sure, Toronto's shots were falling, but the last play of the game said it all. Eddie House's three-ball attempt to win the game hit rim, but Allen picked up the rebound and chucked up another attempt, this time to tie the game. Thankfully, he missed, and Chuck was able to bring out the salami and cheese, but Allen should never have gotten that opportunity in the first place. Rebounding is definitely this team's achilles heel and until they sort it out, and I'm not sure how they're going to go about doing that, how serious can they be taken?

The Raps rebounding woes didn't burn them last night and it was a scintillating fourth quarter. My man Calderon is also deserving of some serious high-fivery. Doug Smith at The Star is dead-on about the Spaniard; where the hell would the Raptors be without him? Numero ocho has to make the All-Star team. It would be a travesty if he didn't. He's a rudey. Start praying that Toronto is able to get this guy's autograph on a long-term contract.

While Ray Allen's game-winning attempt was on its way to the basket, and I was yelling "No!" like a school girl, the Maple Leafs were up to some late game theatrics of their own, courtesy of their captain. Who else?

Mats Sundin made sure Cliff Fletcher's return to the Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off with a bang, and the Leafs beat the Washington Capitals 3-2, thanks to Sundin's goal with 30 seconds left to play.

It was the 544th goal of Sundin's illustrious career, tying him on the all-time list with the great Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Any time you're mentioned in the same sentence as the Rocket, you know you've done pretty damn well for yourself. This is also the 17th straight season where Mats has scored 20 goals or more. Captain consistency. Like Helen Seinfeld used to say about her son Jerry - "How could anyone not like him?" The more people talk about Sundin possibly being traded, and the more he tells the media he doesn't want to leave, the less I can picture him in another uniform. He's a Maple Leaf. For better or worse (usually worse).

Speaking of Cliff Fletcher, that's one hell of a tan he got down in Mexico last week. Must have been nice. His face at the presser on Tuesday was as red as a, well, I don't know. But, damn, it was really red. While the attitude around the Leafs was more calm than usual last night - the calm after the storm, I guess - it's good Fletcher got some sun and the vacation out of the way. Because it's all business from here on out, with the 19 month contract he has signed. It looks as if he really is going to be just the interim general manager, as the Leafs will be hiring a new president and general manager in a few months, and Fletch will then become a consultant. So, Richard Peddie may finally be getting out of the way. When that happens, when the Leafs do hire a new president and general manager sometime over the summer, it really will be Christmas in July.

The speculation has already begun over who it will be, but none of that matters right now. It's all about Fletcher, The Silver Fox, and what he can do to try and fix this team. After last night's win Toronto is only five points out of the blessed eighth playoff spot, so cue up that number one draft pick baby, because the Leafs are going to be buying at the trade deadline!

At least Fletcher knows what to expect in his second go round with the Buds. And he can't possibly age much worse than he already has. I think he's 72, but he looks like he's pushing 85. The man's got pictures of himself on the internet from 1970! At least we know he's never, ever, used any "Just For Men" products. But I digress. I got faith in the Fletch. His reputation is great, he knows how to get things done in this business, and he's got a Stanley Cup ring around his finger. That says it all.

And kudos to John Ferguson Jr. Not only did he not throw any low blows the organization's way at his press conference, he thanked the Leafs for the opportunity. JFJ's a bigger man than I am. He's reportedly already received a few job offers already, and that's not really surprising. Even though the results weren't there, I think he leaves the Leafs in better hands than when he got his job back in 2003. The Leafs have some top notch prospects coming along the pipe (Justin Pogge and Nikolai Kulemin) and the fruits of JFJ's labour won't be known until at least five years down the road. But his retooling of the scouting department and the fact that the Toronto Marlies are one of the best teams in the AHL have to count for something. Peace out, JFJ. Stay classy.

The Leafs are 4-1 in their last five games, largely due to Vesa Toskala's stellar play. Their only loss came Sunday in New Jersey, when Toskala got the night off. Andrew Raycroft was, as usual, his Raycrapian self. Toskala was once again brilliant last night, and can probably take the Leafs to the playoffs on his back if he gets hot. He's that good. With a win tonight in Washington, it might be time to dust off the blueprints to the parade route...again.

Welcome back to hell, Fletch.