Andrew Unterberger, TBJ’s traveling basketball correspondent, was in Toronto last night for Raptors-Warriors. Here’s his report…
North of the border for the second time in two months — the first a jaunt to Montreal with friends a few months ago for some poutine and old-school Expos garb, the second a visit to Toronto last night to see the Raptors take on the Warriors. The good news is that I’m getting much better at handling the border questionings — my first trip over, I wilted under the (mostly imaginary) pressure and was seconds away from confessing to smuggling infractions I probably didn’t actually commit. Now I’ve got the routine down — short, unelaborative answers, and unwavering eye contact. You can’t scare me, you wannabe Mounties.
Of course, while I was in town, I met up with the good people of The Basketball Jones, who were gracious enough to show me around their new digs and to take me out to dinner at Real Sports, the It sports bar of downtown Toronto. Of course, the place was booked solid, so we ended up going to the nearby Hoops, which was sold to me as being “like Real Sports, but worse in every possible way.” Still, a meal on company dime is a meal on company dime, and I got to try Hoops’ official “Toronto Burger,” which included back bacon, definitively the second-most wonderful Canadian foodstuff not to sufficiently trickle its way down south.
Then to the ACC, where I’d be seeing the Warriors as an away team for the second game in a row. Couldn’t ask for a much better match-up, though — with the Warriors’ scoring-happy backcourt, and the Raptors’ defense-sad frontcourt, I was sure to get an entertaining contest, in the very least.
The Stadium: The Air Canada Centre (and can I tell you what a joy it is to temporarily be able to use the “–re” spellings for words and not feel like an asshole for doing so — no wonder people are so happy here) is located in the center of what I’m told is a recently-constructed sort of downtown hub, with bars, gift shops and other stores making a nice complement for the already very pretty ACC. (The nearby CN tower even seemed to be lit up in old-school Raps colors.) Tas commented that they were trying to get the All-Star Game around there within the next two years, and I have to say that weather aside, it seems like a fairly logical fit. According to some, Toronto is the “White Vegas,” so consider the dunk slammed on that one.
I’d also like to salute the Raptors for having the first mascot I’ve seen this trip that actually felt like a true team mascot, and not some shallow and poorly-dated attempt at a cultural grab-on. The Raptor was gettin’ in the business all night, pumping up the crowd, rhumba-ing up a storm to Pitbull, and providing the funniest pre-filmed sketch I’ve seen at an NBA game in some time, where he snuck up on Raps employees with an air horn (ultimately getting the tables turned on him by coach Jay Triano). A pro’s pro, and most importantly, not at all weird or creepy.
Coulda used a slightly more creative name, though. Only complaint.
The Game: On maybe the best night for closely-contested basketball games between two solid teams of this young NBA season, Raps-Warriors was not particularly closely-contested and featured one solid NBA team at the most. Nonetheless, it was an imminently watchable contest, with a number of legitimate highlight plays on both sides — none better than this Sonny Weems jam, after ruthlessly shedding Monta Ellis in the back-court. The Raptors fell behind early thanks to some unconscionable interior defense, but battled back late to at least make it a game, thankfully getting the crowd into it in the fourth quarter.
My heart went out to poor Reggie Evans, an old buddy of mine from when he was with the Sixers, and an inevitable fan-favorite (and surprise stat-stuffer, averaging 13 boards a game going into last night) with the Raptors. “Whether it’s true or not, Toronto likes to think of itself as a blue-collar city,” Raptors writer for the National Post Eric Koreen told me. “[Evans] is exactly the kind of guy who Torontonians just gravitate to.” But even scrappers have off nights, and Reggie had one of the worst cases of the dropsies I’ve seen, losing countless rebounds and passes through his fingers, unable to give the crowd the hustle plays they so badly wanted to cheer for.
The game’s greatest joy, unsurprisingly, was Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. I wrote about the rush of witnessing Monta flying to the rack when he played the Pistons the night prior, and once again, No. 8 was on fire in the first half, absolutely undeniable within ten feet of the rim. (And if anyone was going to deny him, it certainly wasn’t Andrea Bargnani). But after a big first two-and-a-half quarters, he took something of a back seat to Curry for the the game’s final 3/8ths, as Steph proved himself just as enthralling with his variety of scoring moves, cutting to the basket, doing his Dream Shake imitation in the lane, and spotting up for some of the most geometrically-stunning three-point splashes you’re likely to witness on an NBA court.
It makes you start to wonder about the potential for these two guys in general. Within a couple of years, it seems likely that they’ll both be among the ten most gifted scorers in the league — Monta’s aleady there — and I could see them becoming the first backcourt in I don’t know how long to average a combined 50 points a game. You’d think that such a back-heavy scoring attack wouldn’t end up a recipe for wins, but here the Warriors are at 5-2. We need Monta to recover from his back injury as quickly as possible (preferably in time for my game in Golden State on the 22nd), and more importantly, we need a catchy nickname for this duo, pronto. (No ideas yet, though it did occur to me that they’re only a “Ken” away from being able to pun off of 90s R&B trio MoKenStef).
One final game note: On Asian Heritage night, it was cool getting to see Warriors backup point and Harvard alum Jeremy Lin do his thing in extended first-half minutes. He might not be able to do anything else — he didn’t shoot many jumpers, I didn’t see any standout moments defensively, and his athleticism looked about average — but the boy can pass. His passes were positively Nashian in their whip-smart speed, accuracy and vision, and he found the open man cleanly on something like four or five consecutive second-quarter possessions. As Bill Simmons would say, he has the Point Guard Gene, pure and simple. He’ll be fun to watch in the upcoming years.
The Fans: As I mentioned several times to the Jonesers, the crowd was by far the best and biggest of the stadiums I’ve seen thus far — which was clearly more of a damning of the current state of basketball in the Northeast than a compliment to the Raptors crowd, which Skeets said was the worst he had ever seen. (Hey, at least all of the sections actually had people in them — more than I can say for some.) Still, the fans that showed really showed, and I was impressed with the fervor they put into rooting on such a losing team on such an off night (which included some hearty boos at a timeout down 43-26). The building got legitimate in the fourth, and the cheers for an Amir Johnson alley-oop and a momentum-stealing Andrea Bargnani three as the Raptors mounted their semi-comeback were easily the loudest of my trip.
The most interesting thing about the stadium and fanbase, to me at least, was the ghost of Chris Bosh. For a guy who had absolutely defined the franchise for the last seven years, it was incredible to me the way memory of him seemed to be positively wiped from the arena — no mention, nothing I saw on the walls or at the gift shop, and not a single person wearing his jersey except for one guy I saw as I was walking out of the stadium. (Even Vince Carter, veritable cultural pariah, had at least a couple fans rockin’ the retro 15s.) “I think Bosh genuinely likes the city and played hard for seven years here,” said Eric. “But this is a fanbase that does not take kindly to the notion that they are less than worthy, especially when comparing the Raptors to the 29 other American teams.” Hard to argue with.
The void is especially noticeable given the team’s current lack of star power. The fans seem to want to latch onto Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan as potential franchise guys, and one guy I talked to even seemed to think that Bargnani could be the next in line as the go-to guy after Bosh. But right now, it’s clearly a spot up for the taking, and as Eric suggested to me, it might take a couple good draft picks for that role to really be filled. (The good news: At 1-6 currently, the Raps are on a pretty good track to land the first of those in ’11.)
Most Popular Jerseys: Toss-up between Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon for current, with Bargnani probably just getting the nod. For retro … it’s hard to have a consistent favorite when your franchise’s best players keep getting written out of team history. There were some fun and minorly surprising throwbacks to be had, though, including showings from Jalen Rose, Anthony Parker and even Alvin Williams.
Also Worth Noting: One particularly die-hard fan shown on the Jumbo actually had the team’s old school dinosaur logo shaved into the back of his head, getting a nice round of applause for his efforts. I had a conversation with the guy sitting next to me about how that guy lives his day-to-day life, going to job interviews and whatnot. “The world needs fans like that, I guess,” I concluded. “They do it so we don’t have to.”
Swag Acquired: Raptors mug with the paw-thing logo on it. Personally, I don’t get why they ever strayed from the dribbling raptor — sure, it still brings back traumatic memories of the dinosaur-crazed mid-90s (helllloooo, Whoopi) but at least it didn’t look like something the Bobcats could have gotten away with using.
Sirius/XM Jam of the Day:
The Spinners – “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”(Soul Town, XM 53) Lesser-remembered hit from the Detroit 70s soul legends. First half-minute guaranteed to give you 90s middle-school slow-dance flashbacks.
Next up: Cleveland, for a Wednesday game against the Nets, in the second of my “Jiltees” back-to-back. (Kudos, Eric.)