Regardless of what happens the rest of season, the Toronto Raptors have accomplished something vital by pulling themselves off the NBA scrap heap in the space of six crisp weeks.
They've made themselves relevant.
Last night, the Air Canada Centre was rocking again as an energized crowd of 18,265 came out to see the Raptors duel Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, three days after the home team defeated Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in front of one of the biggest crowds in franchise history.
And while any basketball fan would be entertained watching Wade weave, slither and explode for 35 points and 10 assists, a Raptors fan could take heart that - as they have almost every night since early December - their club competed and for the most part had answers.
The result was a 111-103 win that improved Toronto to 17-9 since their season-low point last Dec. 4.
You want to become part of the conversation in your local sports market? How about winning 11 of your last 12 games on home court?
Last night, Toronto (24-22) did it in pleasing fashion.
Chris Bosh didn't bother trying to match Wade's offensive spectacle. He banged his way for 24 points but, more importantly, pulled down a season-high 18 rebounds and dished four assists.
Yet when Toronto did falter ever-so slightly down the stretch, Bosh helped anchor the defence and force Miami into a late shot clock situation it missed on, battled for an offensive rebound at the other end, and knocked down an essential jump shot to put Toronto up 100-91 with less than five minutes left.
There was all kinds of help. It briefly appeared Wade would put Toronto down all by himself before Andrea Bargnani caught fire inside and out, knocking down shots that inflated the assist totals of his ball-moving teammates. The Italian racked up 14 points in the third period - and would score a total of 27 last night - taking the Raptors into the final quarter up four after trailing 60-57 at halftime.
With rookie energizer DeMar DeRozan out with an ankle injury, Sonny Weems stepped in and provided nine first-quarter points to help Toronto stay close in the early going. It was Weems's late-game replacement, Antoine Wright, who hit a corner three-point shot with 15 seconds left to slam the door on the Heat. (Wright finished with nine unexpected point of his own.)
Perhaps most encouraging, going into the game no one was trying to pretend it wasn't a significant contest with implications in the Eastern Conference standings and - because Toronto and Miami (23-22) had split their season series so far - implications for potential playoff seedings.
"I like the way we played, I like the way we've played over the past few games," Raptors head coach Jay Triano said afterward. "We have to keep building."
NOTES There was more consternation about DeMar DeRozan being left off the rookie team at the NBA All-Star game than there was about him missing last night's game with a sprained ankle. He's going to miss tonight's game against the New York Knicks too, as Raptors coach Jay Triano said he would stay in Toronto for treatment. Sonny Weems, who made his first NBA start last night in lieu of DeRozan, was shocked when told his friend was left off the nine-man roster that plays against the sophomore team on All-Star Friday night. "That's bogus," Weems said. Chris Bosh was also surprised. "I mean, come on. Look at the numbers," Bosh said of DeRozan, who is averaging 8.2 points a game on 46.4-per-cent shooting. "He's one of the top rookies. He's done a great job this year." … The Heat played in Cleveland on Monday night and Miami star Dwyane Wade was motivated by his own failures down the stretch: He missed a pair of free throws, committed a turnover that allowed LeBron James to score the game-winning points for Cleveland, then missed what would have been the game-winning shot for Miami. … There are three Canadians in the NBA and two of them play for Miami: Jamaal Magloire of Toronto and Joel Anthony of Montreal.
NEXT Thursday night, at New York Knicks, 7:30 p.m. EST.
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