Game No. 9: Raptors 97, Timberwolves 87

The Raptors bounced back from a couple of miserable performances this past weekend by simply outworking the T-Wolves for a hard-fought W.

Here are my thoughts on the game:

1- The Battle of Spanish Point Guards. At first I thought it was just us fans, and mostly Raptors fans, that were hyping this game up as a matchup between Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon, but lo and behold, I take my seat at the Air Canada Centre, and what’s the first thing they play on the jumbo-tron before the starting lineups? A video montage of Rubio and Calderon highlights, complete with Spanish subtitles and very authentic Spanish music. For a few seconds, I felt like I had been transported to Spain and was getting ready to watch a bull fight.

There wasn’t much of a one-on-one battle once the dust finally settled. Calderon finished with a solid 14 points and six assists in 41 minutes, while young Ricky finished with a more than respectable 10 points and six dimes in 30 minutes. Watching him play in Euro competitions and international tournaments, I was never really sold on Rubio, but watching his first couple of weeks in the NBA and seeing him live, I’m definitely a believer now. The guy can flat out play, and he looks like a star in the making.

2- Maybe it’s five-and-a-half years too late, maybe it’s not going to last, but wow, Andrea Bargnani, now this is the guy Bryan Colangelo drafted No. 1 overall for a reason. You might see his 11-for-25 shooting or see his nine rebounds and think it’s not much for a seven-footer, but if you actually watched this game, I don’t see how you weren’t impressed with “Il Mago.” He was working his tail off on the defensive end, contesting as many shots as he could get to, was going up in crowds and coming down with the ball, and on offence, was un-guardable for parts of the game. I’m not saying two weeks of solid play should erase years of maddening performances, but I can’t find anything wrong with what Bargnani is doing right now. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, regardless of this team’s record, Andrea Bargnani is playing like an All Star right now.

3- I can’t give Bargnani all that love and not mention Amir Johnson. On Monday night, Johnson simply out-Kevin-Loved Kevin Love. Love gets by with limited natural ability but a lion’s heart and hustle. Amir showed us what it looks like when someone with more natural ability and athleticism puts in the same kind of effort Love does. Amir finished with 19 points despite taking just nine shots, grabbed 11 rebounds, and perhaps most impressive of all, finished with a plus/minus of plus-31 in just 30 minutes of action. He nearly had a double-double (eight points, eight rebounds) in the first quarter alone. Sometimes his silly decision making and inability to avoid foul trouble make watching Amir Johnson insanely frustrating, but when he puts it all together, he reminds us why so many people still have high hopes for him. In the last two games, Johnson has 31 points on 13-of-20 shooting and has grabbed 25 rebounds in 62 minutes. Now the question, as it always is with Amir, is can he do this on a consistent basis?

4- Two guys who didn’t necessarily put up eye-popping numbers but who were noticeable down the stretch were James Johnson and DeMar DeRozan. Johnson didn’t force any shots, which is often his downfall (only took three in 20 minutes) and played some excellent defence to close out the game. The most memorable defensive play of the night for me was watching Johnson come flying in to block what looked to be a sure dunk and two points from the Wolves after being way out of the play. James is at his best when he’s making an impact on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s exactly what he did in this one. Five boards and four blocks in just 20 minutes was more than enough.

As for DeMar, we all know his shot has gone AWOL in the last three games, but what bugged me about his performances against the Nets and Sixers was that he didn’t seem into the game at all, and his body language showed it. Against Minnesota, DeRozan found a way to contribute despite shooting just three-of-11, as the 22-year-old grabbed six rebounds and came up with two huge steals in the game’s final minutes.

5- I know I could not have been the only one left complaining about the officiating in this game. You know how they say that technically, the refs could call a foul on every single trip down the floor? Well either someone bet the “over” on this game, or the refs were just trying to prove the old saying to be true, because what they did in the second quarter was pathetic. The game was robbed of its flow and energy in the first half, as cheap foul after cheap foul was whistled down. In total, the team’s combined for 54 personal fouls (or 1.125 per minute) and 61 free throws. Sometimes games are just overly physical or chippy and warrant those kind of numbers. This was not one of those game.

6- Finally, a note on the sparse crowd (14 097) at the Air Canada Centre. A lot of people in seats around me were talking about how small the crowd was and how bad a sign it was that the Raptors couldn’t get a big crowd for Rubio’s Timberwolves. First of all, as exciting as Rubio and the Timberwolves are to watch on most nights, they are still far from being a legitimate draw around the NBA, so I don’t see why anyone would have expected a very large crowd for a Monday night game against Minnesota. And to be honest, as bad as just over 14,000 sounds, I’m not worried at all. This Raptors team is expected to lose close to 50 out of 66 games this season, they haven’t made the playoffs in four years and they’re still recovering from losing their franchise player less than two years ago. All things considered, I don’t see Toronto’s attendance averages as a concern.

If this team were to suddenly get competitive or eventually become a perennial contender and attendance never picked up, it would be a different story. But we all know the ACC will be consistently filled with even a decent team on the floor, so don’t worry about the current attendance figures.

Raptors Player of the Game: Amir Johnson – 30 Min, 19 Pts, 7-9 FG, 5-6 FT, 11 Reb, 3 Ast, 1 Stl, 1 Blk, 1 TO

Timberwolves Player of the Game: Kevin Love – 36 Min, 13 Pts, 3-16 FG, 2-4 3PT, 5-10 FT, 14 Reb, 1 Ast, 1 TO (I love Kevin’s hustle, and I’m aware of his numbers, but his sometimes inefficient offensive game and his lack of a defensive game keep me from thinking of him as highly as others do. He’s a phenomenal rebounder and a valuable player, but I’m not sold on him as a superstar.)

The Raps are right back at it in Washington on Tuesday night before flying back to Toronto for a home date with the Kings on Wednesday. This week should be “interesting,” to say the least.