Regardless of what happens the rest of the Toronto Raptors' season, they've accomplished something vital by pulling themselves off the NBA scrapheap 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 in Toronto's first game since overcoming Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in front of one of the biggest crowds in franchise history.
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, the 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 on Dec. 4.
You want to become part of the conversation in your local market? How about winning 10 of your last 11 on your 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 slightly down the stretch, Bosh helped anchor the defence and forced Miami into a late shot-clock situation it missed, battled for an offensive rebound, and knocked down an essential jumper to put Toronto up 100-91 with just under five minutes left to help restore Toronto's cushion.
There was all kinds of help. As it briefly appeared Wade would put Toronto under all by himself, Andrea Bargnani caught fire inside and out, knocking down shots that inflated the assist totals of his ball-moving teammates, part of a 28-21 run led by the Italian's 14 points in the third period that put 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 when they appeared tight in the early going. It was Weems's late-game replacement, Antoine Wright, who hit the corner triple with 15 seconds left that slammed the door on the Heat. Wright finished with nine unexpected points. Toronto's bench contributed 37 points, 12 assists and 16 rebounds, compared to 25, 1 and 16 from Miami's subs.
The Raptors held the Heat to 44.4-per-cent shooting while knocking down 56.8 per cent of their own shots.
But perhaps most encouraging was that going into the game, no one was trying to pretend it wasn't a significant contest with implications for the standings, and, because Toronto and Miami had split the season series so far, implications for playoff seedings down the stretch.
"We know what's at stake," Bosh said. "We've climbed all the way up to where we are in the standings and we don't want to just let it go because it's easier to lose than to win. It's a tough mountain to climb but have a bunch of games left and we have to keep pursuing success."
Toronto moved into fifth in the East with the win, passing the Heat, and won the season series as well, the first tiebreaker in the NBA's playoff process.
In the early going it appeared the Raptors might have wound themselves up into a bit of a state. Bosh missed four of his first five shots while Wade seemed incapable of missing, going off for 14 points in the first quarter as Miami jumped out to 34-23 lead and looked unstoppable even as Weems used every inch of his 6-foot-7 frame to try to disturb Wade, but to no avail.
"It's a big opportunity for me as an individual," Weems said of his chance to face one of the NBA's best in his first career start. "But we got to get the win. If we don't get the win, it doesn't matter."
They did and it does. Heading into the game, Toronto was tied for the fifth-best record in the NBA during their six-week surge.
It's getting harder to pretend it's a passing trend.
"I like the way we played, I like the way we've played over the past few games," Toronto coach Jay Triano said. "We have to keep building."
The Raptors left after the game to play the New York Knicks. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back has been a sore point this season. They've won only once in that situation.
"We can enjoy this one for five minutes and then we have to work on the Knicks and play another game," Triano said. "But I like how we're going right now."
Hard not to.
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 / The Raptors play the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden tonight, 7:30 p.m. EST.
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