If this was such a big victory for the Raptors, why did the last five minutes of the game feel like, oh, a month or so of pure torture?
Killer instinct? Somebody call the humane society because this certainly was cruel and unusual punishment for 17,981 fans who spent the closing moments with their hearts in their mouths.
Armed with a hard-earned 22-point lead and with just over six minutes remaining on the clock, the Raptors needed almost all that cushion before they finally wrestled the determined Washington Wizards to the ground in the dying seconds, settling -- pleased as punch, as it turned out -- for a 116-111 win.
"I'm happy," coach Sam Mitchell said. "Hey, we made some mistakes down the stretch, they made some mistakes, they hit some tough, tough threes. But our guys won the game against a good basketball team that has been playing extremely well. Last time I checked that's why you go out there. You play the game to win. I'm happy."
For most of the game, the Raptors had played effectively against Washington, one of the hottest teams in the league. The Wizards came to Toronto having won 13 of their previous 16 games, sparked by rapidly emerging MVP candidate Gilbert Arenas. But with 6:18 remaining, Toronto had a 103-81 advantage.
Then the Wizards went to a small, quick lineup and a full-court press and started making circus shots and steals. Down the stretch they nailed five three-pointers, scoring 30 points in the final six minutes. The Raptors, flustered by the press, turned the ball over five times. But while they bent, they didn't break.
The Wizards got to within five points with 20 seconds left, but never got closer despite a bizarre intentional foul by Joey Graham with six seconds remaining.
Graham apparently misinterpreted something Mitchell had said during a timeout but in the end, the gaffe didn't hurt the Raptors. Mitchell took the blame, though it's hard to imagine a player not being sharp enough to understand the situation.
"It was my fault. Joey thought I said one thing when I meant another," Mitchell said. "I've got to be clearer. It's not Joey's fault."
Graham gets a pardon because he played such a strong game, scoring 15 points and grabbing five rebounds in 30 minutes. He and Chris Bosh (24 points, 15 rebounds) were dominant inside all afternoon. Arenas, who scored 11 of his 33 points in the final six minutes, had been limited to 15 points in the first three quarters. He and his high-scoring mates, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, are particularly suited to an effective full-court press.
"How many teams can put that group of scorers, with that athleticism and quickness, on the floor at the same time?' Mitchell said.
In the end, the Raps had their 15th win to move back into sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division, a half-game ahead of the New Jersey Nets. The Raps and Nets square off in New Jersey tomorrow night.
CAN'T BE PICKY
"I'm happy. We can't be picky with our wins," Bosh said. "We're in first place in the Atlantic and now we have to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack."
Toronto has three road games this week before coming home to play seven of nine at home to finish out January, an important stretch of games in the grand scheme of this team's playoff chances.
"My confidence is to the sky," said guard T.J. Ford, who played 30 minutes and scored 20 points on a gimpy ankle. "It's just a matter of getting the wins. This is the opportunity for us to take advantage. It allows us to get some separation with everybody coming back."
Quickly -- like, immediately -- the fourth-quarter anxiety is forgotten. Victory always erases a lot of sins.
B+ Offence: The Raps shot a solid 51% from the floor and got 41 totals points off the bench, including double figures from Andrea Bargnani, Joey Graham and Jose Calderon.
B Defence: For more than three quarters, the Raptors held in check one of the NBA's most explosive offences. Giving up 41 in the final quarter, however, knocks the final grade down a notch.