Raps' Robin playing like a superhero

STEVE BUFFERY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

PORTLAND -- At the beginning of the season, there was heated controversy over whether Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo made the right move in trading forward Charlie Villanueva for point guard T.J. Ford.

Not surprisingly, much of the debate has abated.

As the 2006-07 season progresses, the diminutive Ford has proven time again that Colangelo made a wise move in pulling the trigger on one of the biggest swaps of the summer.

Never mind his gutsy buzzer-beating, 12-foot jump shot that gave Toronto a 98-96 victory over the host L.A. Clippers on Wednesday night. Ford is quietly putting together a near all-star calibre season. Averaging 10.0 points and 6.5 assists over two seasons, Ford is having a career year in Toronto, dropping 14.8 points per game and a team-high 8.1 assists, eighth-best in the NBA.

In his past two games, in Phoenix and Los Angeles this week, Ford stepped up big despite playing with a sore lower back. But the Raptors have leaned on the six-foot, 160-pound (unofficially, he's much smaller) Texas native for scoring, playmaking, and leadership, particularly with all-star forward Chris Bosh out of the lineup with a bruised left knee. And he has come through.

In a 115-98 loss to the high-flying Suns on Tuesday night, Ford did his best to keep up with his all-world counterpart, Steve Nash.

Nash, the two-time NBA MVP, played his usual stellar game, picking up 10 points and 15 assists. But Ford earned the fans' respect, notching 19 points, five rebounds and nine assists.

Ford is quickly earning the reputation as a player with a lot of mental and physical fortitude, beginning with his return from a serious neck injury that kept him out of the 2004-05 season.

"He's a tough kid," Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell said. "I tell people all the time, guys like him, like Earl Boykins, those guys are that size their whole life. No one is going to give them anything. They have to go and earn it. They know people are going to try to post them up and they know they have to be a little bit tougher than the average guy.

"I was with T.J. in Milwaukee," the coach added. "That's one of the reasons why we wanted him. Right after he had his neck injury, two weeks after, he thought he could play then, before he realized it was something more serious."

Ford considers himself a co-leader on the Raptors squad, along with Bosh, which tells you something about the Raptors, that the two team leaders are 23 and 22.

"We're both leaders, but in our own different way," Ford said. "When Chris is in the game, he's the focal point. He's the Batman and I'm the Robin. And I accept that role and that responsibility. I'm not trying to be Batman."

Ford believes the 11-15 Raptors, who touch down in Portland tonight, are slowly carving a niche for themselves as a scrappy team that will fight it out to the end.

"Now we have our own style, our own way of playing, and now I think we have something people can identify with," he said. "Our ultimate thing is to play Toronto basketball -- just grind it out, play tough."


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