April 25, 2008
I say this as an objective observer who, in spite of having a good mate in attendance, has nothing to gain by going out of his way to praise a particular branch of fandom.
In fact, this particular branch of fandom caused me grief to no end in the late 1990s and the earlier part of this decade. Raptor fans were the most sensitive, whining, pedantic group of supporters in the league by far.
No doubt this was caused by a batch of stateside "reporters" who stupidly went out of their way to question Toronto's viability as an NBA town, but that doesn't mean you take it out on the ones who don't, just because they didn't like the Hoffa Araujo pick or Alvin Williams' contract extension.
(No lingering resentment there. None. Right.)
Back to the point: the crowd at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night was the most invigorating batch of supporters I've seen since Chicago and/or New York's 1990s heyday. Not only were they on top of the game, anticipating the action and working the visiting team, but they were starting chants and cheers without the aid of a giant Jumbotron, or the prodding of a patronizing PA man. It was exhilarating to watch, even if the game was decidedly one-sided.
Even through the TV, down here in the sticks, you could tell that this was an organic, righteous batch of supporters. It wasn't exactly astonishing, we've known for years that Raps fans (despite some of their more annoying aspects, detailed above) know the game to no end and will feverishly back their team, but it was a little inspiring:
NBA teams, if you give your fans the chance to act on their own and cheer how they want to, then you can cut payroll, lose the sound effects, and actually deter the opponents. Give the punters a chance.
On the game angle, Orlando impressed just as much as the victors. The Magic didn't back down in spite of a Raptor flurry to open the game, even drawing within single digits several times in the second half. If the Magic move on to the second round, this sort of showing bodes well.
I was aghast at Toronto coach Sam Mitchell's decision to start Jamario Moon initially. Not because Moon doesn't deserve to start - he does - but because it relegated Rasho Nesterovic to the bench. My line of thinking went something like this: yeah, Rasho has left Dwight Howard way too much in the first two games, looking to help when Orlando penetrates the paint, but you don't go smaller in the face of a center who is averaging over 20 points and rebounds a game.
But, in spite of Howard's white-hot start (I thought, honestly, that he was in line for a 30/30 game), the ploy worked. Moon went off (11 points and ten rebounds), on both ends, Howard had a series of dunks and offensive rebounds but eventually succumbed to foul trouble, and the Raptors took to an early lead that they never relinquished.
I was as shocked as anyone to note that Violet Palmer was calling a playoff game, and while fans of either the Magic or Raptors may not like this refereeing crew's insistence on calling the moving screen, you can tell it was an edict sent down by the NBA after Tuesday and Wednesday night's action. Those screens were all over the place, and rarely called.
I'm not going to tell you that Palmer is either a great or even average referee. But if you think she's the worst in the NBA, then you don't watch a lot of this league. There are many, many refs that are far, far worse. She's closer to the middle of the pack than the bottom of the barrel.
Washington did what it was supposed to do, sending two or three defenders toward LeBron James any time he'd get the ball within 25 feet of the hoop, while moving the rock and attacking offensively (Caron Butler, loved the Connie Hawkins impersonation), and taking in the expected great games from the younger role players.
Cleveland's non-LeBrons shot 35 percent, Cavalier coach Mike Brown never had a counter play for what was anticipated (Washington chasing James off the ball), and things pretty much played right up to expectation.
I have a feeling this series might not be worth paying a ton of attention to until its seventh game, on May 4th.
This was a low, low, low possession game - 82 of them on Thursday night - which would appear to be right in Utah's wheelhouse. After all, the NBA's most efficient offensive team in the regular season (you heard me) smacks of a slowed-down outfit, and the team was playing in an arena that they've lost just four times in over the last 11 months.
And yet, they couldn't get over a Rocket team that was actually putting the ball in the hole. Yes, Utah's hack-happy "defense" (if I hear one more commentator go on about how the Jazz are "defensive-minded," I'm going to shout at my couch) had a bit to do with it -- the Jazz sent opponents to the line 22 times a game over the regular season and sent the Rockets there 22 times on Thursday despite fewer possessions to do so - but it was mainly the work of a Houston team that came up with the legs enough to nail tough shots.
And the Jazz like to run. The team executes incredibly well in the half-court, but it also feeds off of transition and delayed-transition buckets, mainly because Deron Williams is so strong, has such a good touch, and makes great decisions with the ball. Slowing the pace to a crawl benefits Houston, not the Jazz.
Rockets point man Rafer Alston hadn't played in 11 days, and while role players usually love to make their return from injury at home, he came through with a game-changing performance on the road: 20 points on 14 shots, five assists to one turnover, while Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes combined to give Houston nine points and 18 rebounds (to say nothing of stellar, feet-movin' defense) in 39 combined minutes.
I don't know the name of the Jazz fan that was tossed by referee Bob Delaney (you can see him in the purple shirt on the right side of the basket in this photo), but he's been a thorn in the side of NBA refs for years, always trying to move the basket stanchion.