When Chris Bosh went down last month with a deep knee bruise, it created a trial by fire for the other young Raptors. Tonight Bosh returns but, oops, the flames just got a little higher.
Now with T.J. Ford hobbled by an ankle sprain and Jorge Garbajosa nursing a calf injury, the Raptors will simply have to adapt once again to the circumstances of the moment.
"We've got Garbo out and we don't know if T.J. is going to play," said coach Sam Mitchell after yesterday's practice in preparation for the Phoenix Suns invasion tonight.
"So we get Chris back but we still lose two more starters. Garbo is probably our best team defender and he's been shooting the ball well. And obviously we all know how well T.J. has been playing. So we get one guy back but lose two. It's still a tough situation."
Tough situation, sure. But the truth of the matter is that this team grew and matured during the last month in ways that would have been impossible if Bosh was in the lineup. Bosh went down in Chicago on Dec. 8 in the midst of what would become a four-game losing streak. To that point in the season, Bosh was, to no one's surprise, the team's central figure, the man the offence ran through.
His first game out of the lineup was a disaster, as the Raptors lost at home to Portland and no one stepped into the hole left by Bosh's absence. They lost again in Miami a night later, then pulled themselves together for a win in Orlando that was the start of a voyage of discovery that has produced six wins in their past 10 games and built a wall of confidence.
During that period, Ford stepped up in a big way and has proven to everyone that he can not only distribute the ball and dictate the tempo, but that he can be a very handy second scoring option. When he is back in full health again, it will be interesting to see how the dynamic of this club has changed.
Bosh saw all this firsthand, watching from the bench the past 12 games. This is his longest stretch of inactivity in his three-plus seasons in the NBA and the view from the sidelines gave him a new perspective on his team and the way it is developing.
"One thing that helps you get better is minutes," said Bosh, reflecting on the opportunity his absence provided other teammates, like Andrea Bargnani. "The more you play and the more responsibility you're given, the better you get. Especially when these guys were put out there and had some pressure put on them. It's good for them to see how they respond."
Now he's anxious to step back in, take some of the pressure off his teammates and perhaps afford them some new opportunities in the process.
"We want to move the basketball, we want to make the right plays and hopefully I can come in and keep moving the ball and maybe take some attention off these other guys," Bosh said. "The more options you have, the better your team is.
"It's hard to sit and watch but it also gave me a chance to step back a little bit and see what works and how it works. It was nice to see how the guys stepped up and you really get a perspective on how important ball movement is. I think that's true of any team at any time. The more you move the ball, the better chances you get."
Ford will be a game-time decision tonight but even in the best of circumstances, it's hard to envision him having his normal impact. It will be up to Jose Calderon to try to maintain the pace against the run-'n'-gun Suns.
Likewise, Bosh is not going to be ready to play 40 minutes.
He'll be monitored as the game progresses.
"Its time to come back and I'm ready to go," he said, relishing the fact there will be a buzz at the ACC with Steve Nash and the Suns in town. "Nobody can come back from injury and play the whole game. I'm not putting a limit on it. However many minutes the coach and trainers think I can handle, that's what I'll get.
"But it's a good game to come back to. The crowd is really going to be in it. Phoenix is playing really well and we're trying to get back on it. We've got a good homestand coming up and if we could win (against Phoenix) it could be really big step up for us."
Whatever happens tonight, groundwork has been laid in the last month for this team to make that step up.
The Raptors have weathered the storm of a horrendous schedule that saw the team play 19 of their first 31 games on the road without getting buried and now a refreshed Bosh (remember, with the World Championships, he had been playing ball for almost 14 months straight, 40 minutes a game) returns.
In the past five or six years, this franchise has had little reason for optimism. Now, at the dawn of 2007, could those be faint rays of hope?