Raps love-fest in full bloom

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

On opening night at centre court, Larry Tanenbaum hugged Bryan Colangelo, who hugged Sam Mitchell, who hugged Chris Bosh, who hugged Andrea Bargnani, who almost smiled.

Almost everywhere, you could feel the love, if not the excitement, even if Bargnani was wearing the only expression he knows: Mouth open, face blank.

Everyone on the floor, except Tanenbaum, was being awarded for something NBA and he had the widest smile. And this seemed, not just like the beginning of another season, but the continuation of something special.

All this at the Air Canada Centre, the same cynical venue where hecklers destroy Bryan McCabe and make Vesa Toskala sweat, this night adoring everything that is Raptor. At least to start the new season. At least until they face a serious opponent who could have turned their late collapse into defeat last night.

This is the ever-changing spiral in the corporate sporting world of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., where not long ago the Maple Leafs were contenders and the Raptors played the part of laughing stock.

Now, the juxtaposition of the two franchises is evident and no more so than last night's pre-game ceremony, which was not forced. There were all the pre-game acknowledgments -- Colangelo for executive of the year, Mitchell for coach of the year, Bosh for being a second-team all-star, Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa for being named to the all-rookie team.

That may have been the beginning of the season but it felt little like the middle of a story. Who knows what comes at the end? Last night, the crowd celebrated more awards and rewards from one season than the entire Raptors decade before it.

This year, the path toward the playoffs may not be completely unimpeded. The East is stronger. This year the Raptors won't get the opportunity to sneak up on anybody. This year we'll find out just how much progress truly has been made with a franchise Toronto believes in but others still wonder about.

Mitchell began defence of his coach-of-the-year award by sending a not-so-subtle message to his team and the rest of the league: Everybody will be playing.

Before the first quarter of the first game was over, Mitchell had used 11 of his 12 players against what's left of the Philadelphia 76ers. And by the time the first half of the first game was over, Mitchell had used everyone.

The Raps scored 58 points in the first half and only used starting centre and possible breakout threat Bargnani for four minutes, long enough to post five points and two fouls.

While some of Toronto's old flaws were evident, even against the challenged Sixers, what also was evident were the many scoring options.

The real difference from last year begins with Bargnani. Even though he barely played in the first half, Bargnani ended up with a game-high 20 points in 22 minutes.

That gives the Raptors, and their opponents, a problem that may be so confounding to defend. Add to that Jason Kapono's perimeter shooting and the continued development of the two-headed point guards, T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon, who produced 27 points, 16 assists in the 106-97 win. A victory -- and we note a point-spread cover -- for the Raptors.

And who knows, a few more nights like this one, a few more minutes played, and maybe Andrea Bargnani will start smiling. Maybe.


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