At 7-foot-2, Raptors centre Loren Woods is tall, but last night he was huge.
The so-called weak link of the Raptors' starting five battled his Houston Rockets counterpart Yao Ming every step of the way as Toronto prevailed in their regular-season opener, 95-88, in front of 19,800 enthusiastic fans at the Air Canada Centre.
Woods picked up nine points and seven assists banging heads with the 7-foot-6 Yao, but the statistics don't tell the whole story. The Toronto newcomer played Yao incredibly tough on defence and basically neutralized Houston's all-star centre. Yao did manage 17 points and nine boards, but much of that came with Woods on the bench.
"Going into this game, I heard a lot of talk about how much I didn't have a chance against Yao and how that was going to be the biggest advantage for Houston," Wood said. "So I just stepped up to the challenge.
"Every day I wake up and I hear how the Raptors don't have a good centre and how I'm not strong enough," added Woods, who threw down a huge slam on a pass from Vince Carter with 47 seconds remaining. "That's what motivates me."
The Raptors will lean heavily on Woods this year to play major minutes at centre, allowing last year's all-rookie centre, Chris Bosh, to play at his natural power forward position. Another newcomer to the Raptors, starting point guard Rafer Alston, had a strong game, with eight assists and 15 points.
The victory, evening Toronto's home opener record at 5-5, was a major relief for first-year head coach Sam Mitchell, whose starting five -- Woods, Bosh, Alston, Carter and Jalen Rose -- shot 27-for-53.
"This is just the first step," Mitchell said. "We have to keep it going. All I want to do is come out and fight every night. If we do that, and play together, we'll win our share."
Mitchell went berserk in the third quarter when Bosh picked up a technical foul after a series of questionable calls against Toronto. The game was nasty at times. With 5:19 left on the clock, Rockets' star guard Tracy McGrady fouled Woods under the basket and tried to get at the Raptor, prompting the crowd to react with a loud chorus of boos. Both players picked up technicals. McGrady, who picked up 21 points, was jeered every time he touched the ball.
Bosh demonstrated that he will be a major force this season -- his second in the NBA -- collecting 20 points and seven rebounds and five fouls.
Carter, who joined the team on Tuesday after being told by a U.S. court to pay his former agent $4.7 million US, had 16 points. Rose picked up 17.