“Win it for Andrea”

I'm a believer.

Raptors 111, Jazz 106 (2OT) – Box

This was the kind of game that reminds you why you’re a fan to begin with. It’s really easy to root for a team that pulls up its collective socks and stares down adversity, and actually comes away with something tangible to show for it. A win in Utah, much deserved.

We all know this year is a little different than most. Expectations are low, wins are even bittersweet. But some games, you just want to see that W. This became one of those games. Why?

1. Second game of back-to-back, a dreaded proposition in recent history
2. Clawing back from a potential blowout and 18 point deficit in the first quarter
3. A normally stoic Andrea Bargnani visibly emotional after re-injuring his calf late in the game
4. Double overtime victory punctuated with gutsy defensive play

It’s time to state unequivocally that the culture on this team has changed. This looks equally great on Dwayne Casey as it looks bad on Jay Triano. He’s gotten Andrea Bargnani to help on defense and even take charges for crying out loud. The new found intensity and positive emotion could be attributable to Bargnani’s maturation, but it’s all happened too fast for that. Rick Carlisle’s influence is evident with Casey. He demands respect without going batshit like Jay Triano was prone to do, even Sam Mitchell before him.

There’s sometimes little a coach can do to influence the outcome of a game. Tonight was an exception. Against a team that lacked a clear three-point threat outside of Raja Bell, the Raptors threw some zone at them, with success. If DeRozan (who also took a charge at a crucial moment in the game) and Bargnani can provide even average defense, this team could even carve an identity as a defensive team. Amir Johnson is a quality defender and James Johnson is really looking like that Josh Smith/Andrei Kirilenko-lite that blocks and steals balls that he has no business being near.

Along with the gritty defense, the Raptors did need a bit of luck. A Calderon three at the end of the shot clock was huge. Devin Harris missing three freebies at the end of the game was even bigger. But look at it, this Utah team is already good. They were 8 – 2 at home this year, despite being a younger team. At the beginning of the game they played at a tempo that would make the old Phoenix Suns blush. It was effective but as soon as Devin Harris subbed out, the game settled into a slower, more natural rhythm. Which is of course, how this year’s Raptors squad likes it.

DeMar DeRozan displayed good decision-making today, by keeping things simple and playing smart defense. The one baseline drive he had near the end of the game was exactly the type of play that separates good players from journeymen. He’s beginning to understand his limitations playing in sometimes deliberate halfcourt sets that emphasize quick execution over improvisation.

This team is a lot better when Jose Calderon looks for his offense. When he turns that corner on the pick and rolls it in for a layup, it reminds me a lot of the young, hungry Calderon’s trademark play. Remember, it was this part of his game that won over the Raptor coaches. The jumper came around later and when he had a good balance of the two, he went on that run where he was one of the elite points in the league and the precursor to the legendary “Forderon” controversy.

The not-so-silver lining to all this is a highly motivated, beasting Andrea Bargnani may be out for a few more games again. For the games he has been playing, this Raptor outfit looks legit. The defense has been unbelievably good compared to last years, surpassing expectations, and there’s just enough offense to with Bargnani and an aggressive Calderon to keep the team going. The bench scoring of Barbosa can not be overlooked as well. This is all with DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis under performing this year, so there’s still room for growth.

All in all, a really fun game to watch. In a town where blue collar types like Jerome “Junk Yard Dog” Williams, Wendel Clark and John McDonald become fan favorites, a win like this takes the cake.