The Raptors will be chasing around a ball this May, and not one of those hard, little white ones.
For the first time since the 2001-02 season, Toronto's basketball team will get an invite to the NBA playoff dance, thanks to a 107-94 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats last night at the Air Canada Centre.
The victory guarantees the Raptors a spot in the post- season, although their opponent, and potential homecourt advantage, is still up in the air.
Advancing to the playoffs is especially sweet for head coach Sam Mitchell, who struggled with a marginal lineup in his first two seasons in Toronto, and all-star forward Chris Bosh, who will finally taste some post-season action for the first time in his NBA career.
"It feels good," said Bosh, who particularly enjoyed clinching the playoff spot in front of the 19,023 fans. "I think they enjoyed it and it shows how we're turning this whole thing around. It's good for the fans to be a part of that and to see it."
The victory also ensures the Raptors their first .500 season since 2001-02 (42-40).
Bosh finished the game with 24 points, 16 rebounds and five assists.
"You feel gratification for the organization and the players, with what we've been through over the past 21/2 seasons," said Mitchell, when asked for his reaction on the milestone. "You're happy for them, happy for the coaches, myself included. But we still have some things we want to accomplish. We still want to try to win the (Atlantic) Division and then try to get homecourt advantage; go into the playoffs playing well and make some noise in the playoffs."
Mitchell believes there were two turning points this season: On Nov. 22 when they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers at home 95-87, after returning from an 0-5 road trip, which dropped them to 2-8 on the season; and on Dec. 13 when they beat the Magic in Orlando 91-84 after losing the previous four games. With Bosh out with a bruised left knee, rookie Andrea Bargnani broke out with 23 points.
"When we were 2-8, everybody doubted us, but we didn't have any doubt in that locker room," Mitchell said. "I remember (senior advisor) Wayne (Embry) kept saying to me: 'It takes time when you have a brand new basketball team.'"
Starting point guard T.J. Ford finished last night's game with 11 points, eight assists and four rebounds while his backup, Jose Calderon, had 14 points and five dimes. Kris Humphries had 13 points and eight rebounds off the bench, while Juan Dixon had 15 points. Anthony Parker also had 14 points as six Raptors, for the second time in as many home games, posted double-digits in points.
The victory was 27th at home this season, tying a franchise record (2000-01). The Raptors have now won four straight at home with an average score of 104-89.
Charlotte rookie Adam Morrison did provide a highlight for the visitors with a Hail May 48-footer at the buzzer to end of the first quarter.
A- Offence: The Raptors shot 46% from the field and went to the free-throw line 29 times, converting on 26. Toronto scored 18 points on the fast-break, compared to four for Charlotte.
B - Defence: The Raptors were huge on the boards, out-rebounding Charlotte 48-34. They allowed the Bobcats to shoot 45% from the floor.