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Friday, February 15, 2008
NBA


Calderon
Calderón's uncanny court sense (8.8 APG) keeps the Raptors on their toes—and on the move.

FRESH MEAT More minutes and a taste of home have José Calderón on the rise. by John Gustafson

Last season José Calderón was a solid backup for the Raptors. This year he's the hottest point guard in the East. So how exactly did that happen?

It's gotta be the ham.

In 2008, Calderón has averaged 14.6 ppg and 10.3 apg through Feb. 10, and he's shot better than 50% from both the field and the arc. Meanwhile, his season-long 5.58 assists-to-TOs ratio is nipping at the heels of Terrell Brandon's league record of 6.14. But it wasn't long ago that Calderón was too busy longing for his native Spain to put up those kinds of numbers. As a rookie in 2005-06, he struggled to adjust to his new life and hit just 16.3% from three-point range. "When I came here, I couldn't play like I used to," he says. "I wasn't José Calderón."

His skills haven't really changed, but his diet has. Calderón's favorite cured ham, pata negra, is to him what spinach is to Popeye. But until recently, the meat was banned in North America due to health concerns. In December, though, the U.S. dropped the ban for one producer, and now Calderón can find his cherished dish in some restaurants on the road. His game hasn't been the same since.

To be fair, he was improving even before man and ham were reunited. He was a solid backup to T.J. Ford, the guard who was supposed to render Calderón irrelevant after joining the Raptors, in 2006. When Ford injured his neck last Dec. 11, Calderón was ready to move into the starting lineup. He played so well that he immediately drew some All-Star buzz. "Little did we know José would turn into a starting-caliber guard," says GM Bryan Colangelo.

The son of a second-division player in Spain, Calderón was signed by Spanish giant TAU Cerámica at age 13 and eventually played six years of pro ball over there. After his rough rookie year, during which Toronto won just 27 games, he considered going back. But in the off-season, he played an integral part in Spain's 2006 FIBA title and rejoined the Raptors with increased confidence.

As Calderón has grown comfortable in Toronto—and as a starter—Ford has worked his way back into shape. Their timeshare doesn't bother either player, though. They've been spending equal time complimenting and complementing each other.

And here's some welcome news: Calderón has heard that pata negra will soon be allowed into Canada. That bit of information should make foes sweat like pigs.


Bass
Bass' contribution off the bench is part of the reason why the Mavs are 2-0 against the Warriors this year.

MIRACLE CURES by Ric Bucher

By trading for Shaq—The Big Antidote—the Suns supposedly quelled the outbreak of small-ball-itis they once started. Not exactly. Plenty of teams are still infected. And it's just good, sound medicine that led a pair of title contenders to uncover their own kind of penicillin this summer: gritty defenders.

The Mavs signed forward Brandon Bass after the Warriors pick-and-rolled them out of the playoffs with Baron Davis and whomever Dirk Nowitzki was guarding. Bass, a 6'8", 240-pound missile, is agile enough to stay in front of Stephen Jackson and strong enough to battle Andris Biedrins down low. It's no coincidence that the Mavs are 20 against the Warriors this season, with Bass chipping in double-doubles off the bench in the wins.

Similarly, the Spurs signed 6'5", 220-pound Ime Udoka to thwart opponents' attempts to get Tim Duncan in foul trouble. Also no accident: Udoka logged season highs in minutes (30) and rebounds (nine) in an 84-81 win over those tiny Suns on Jan. 31.

Udoka and Bass, both of whom were fished from the deep end of the free agent pool, have offensive attributes, too. Udoka shot 40% from the arc last season for the Blazers, and Bass has his team's deadliest midrange eye (yes, including Dirk's). "If he's open from 15 to 18 feet, we want him shooting," says Mark Cuban. "He shoots about 80% from there. He's the best we have, and it's not close."

The new-look Suns aren't about to abandon their full-speed ways. Mike D'Antoni will surely surround Shaq at times with relative Lilliputians Steve Nash, Raja Bell, Grant Hill and Leandro Barbosa. You can't get rid of small-ball-itis that easily.

So expect to see a heavy dose of Bass and Udoka down the stretch.