On the first play of the Toronto Raptors' regular season, the ball went up at midcourt and Chris Bosh served notice he intends this one to be a season apart.
Bosh's first move at the opening tap against the Cleveland Cavaliers wasn't up, but in - specifically into the chest of Cavs centre Shaquille O'Neal with his shoulder.
The 350-pound O'Neal was pushed off line just enough and Bosh ended up winning the tap.
Ten games into his seventh NBA season, Bosh has continued a more physical approach earned in a no-frills weight room in a former department store on the outskirts of Dallas during the off-season - and the result has been the best basketball of his career.
"It's really helped me out, I just need to keep it going," Bosh said of his added strength. "I like the way things are going. I'd like to win more games, but I think that's going to come in time, so I'm going to try and keep my play to the highest level I possibly can and just continue to be aggressive."
Tonight, in Denver against the Nuggets, Bosh will be trying to keep up what is shaping up to be a career-best season: He's averaging 27.7 points and 11.6 rebounds a game, both of which would be career-highs if he finishes the season at that level. He's also averaging an impressive 3.7 offensive rebounds and getting to the free-throw line 12.9 times, the best mark in the NBA. And he's doing it all in just 36.1 minutes a game, the fewest he's played since his rookie year.
Perhaps the best way to express Bosh's superior start is by way of his player efficiency rating (PER), a catch-all number that includes all manner of box score statistics and adjusts them for playing time and pace of play.
Since 1973-74 (when the NBA began tracking individual turnovers), the highest full-season PER recorded was 31.89 by Michael Jordan in 1987-88. Just five players in the past 36 years have had a PER of more than 30 for an entire season - Jordan, LeBron James, O'Neal, David Robinson and Tracy McGrady. Jordan and James are the only players to have topped 31 for a season, a feat James managed last season during his NBA most valuable player campaign.
Through 10 games this season, Bosh's PER was 31.67, second in the NBA only to Chris Paul, the New Orleans Hornets guard who was at 34.05 through 10 games before spraining his ankle.
Can Bosh sustain his level of play?
That's the goal. Raptors head coach Jay Triano has done his part by resisting the urge to roll Bosh out for longer and longer stretches. By playing him in shorter bursts, Bosh is more effective on the boards and driving the ball. It should also keep him fresher as the season goes on.
"I've averaged 40 minutes a game for a season and you don't have much left in the tank," Bosh said. "I want to play at a high level the whole time on the floor. It's just two or three minutes, but when I get out on the court I can maximize my output and keep playing hard.
"I feel like I'm better and I'll be able to sustain it a lot longer," he added. "No more six-week stretches, I want a season stretch."
The next step will be for Bosh's overall performance to keep the Raptors firmly in the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference.
Typically, it's difficult for a power forward to raise the play of his teammates, as they're usually given the ball to score rather than make plays for others. But the very best ones do it, which will be Bosh's next challenge. He's averaging just 2.2 assists a game, and for his career has typically averaged a turnover for every assist he does make.
"It's a lot to ask of a [power forward] but we've seen guys in the past do it," Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash said.
"It depends what you think a [power forward]is but you've got your Garnett's and your Duncans now and in the past you had Karl Malone and Charles Barkley as guys that could really bait a double-team and make great passes and decisions. That's what really set them apart. Not just the scoring but really making the defence pay for sending two guys."
NOTES The last time the Toronto Raptors were in Denver, they were drilled 132-93 - their second drubbing in as many nights on a three-game December swing. The Raptors' record dropped to 8-9 on the season and the team fired head coach Sam Mitchell. Jay Triano took over and could do little as the Raptors then lost 114-87 to the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. … The Raptors' winning percentage is the same as it was just over a year ago, but their outlook is more positive. "It's early, it's 10 games in, but so far we've done a pretty good job and, hopefully, we can get it rolling and all play good basketball at the same time, that will really play to our advantage," Raptors forward Chris Bosh said. … Mitchell was the NBA coach of the year in 2006-07, but is still waiting to get his next job. He remains under contract to the Raptors this season. … With the New Orleans Hornets firing Byron Scott last week, three of the past four NBA coach of the year award winners are out of work, with former Dallas Mavericks bench boss Avery Johnson being the other. Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown is the exception. … Raptors guard Antoine Wright sat with his left ankle in a bucket of ice last Sunday but said the injury, sustained when someone stepped on his ankle in Los Angeles against the Clippers last Friday, wasn't serious. He will be a game-time decision today, as will Hedo Turkoglu (hip).
NEXT Tuesday, at Denver Nuggets, 9 p.m. EST
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