Andrea Bargnani was Dwane Casey's Phil Kessel – an offensively gifted player given to bouts of defensive indifference, the best player on his team yet still fighting the impression of being a more complementary asset than a cornerstone.
Bargnani ended up giving Casey 13 games of his very best to start the NBA season, before a left calf injury interrupted what was shaping up as an All-Star campaign. He was on something of a roll again recently until the calf injury flared up again and so on Friday, when the Toronto Raptors did the logical thing and announced Bargnani was being shut down for the final two weeks, it was with a sense of wisftulness that Casey analyzed the big Italians season. Was that spurt of brilliance enough to convince Casey that Bargnani has bought in?
"That's all I have to go on," Casey said, before his short-handed team held on for an 84-79 win over the Boston Celtics in a sloppy, halfcourt fest at the Air Canada Centre. "I wish I had more, but it's enough for me. I know he can play and do things offensively and defensively.
"It was a great surprise to me, his ability to play defence – his quickness and speed at the defensive end; the way he could move his feet to take charges and used his length on the defensive end. He'd never shown that before. He 'told himself,' as my grandfather used to say."
Think back to Casey's news conference after the end of the NBA lockout, when the head coach made clear that he was going to make Bargnani something of a project. Casey talked about drawing up the same plays for Bargnani that the Dallas Mavericks used for Dirk Nowitzki when Casey was a Mavs assistant coach – making it clear he was putting Bargnani on the spot, instead of the organizational shrug that had become the norm whenever anybody talked about a player that is a sensitive spot with general manager Bryan Colangelo. Casey did not spare the rod publicly with any of his players during the start of the season, but Bargnani soon made the point moot. He no longer seemed destined to be a coach-killer.
Casey was all for shutting down Bargnani. He'd much rather Bargnani go into the off-season with the memory of a bit of a post-injury rally at the forefront instead of, say, the memory of writhing on the floor with a more seriously aggravated injury. Raptors fans wanting the best possible lottery position will no doubt see this as something of a blessing – truth be told, the best possible outcome this season was a successful institution of a new, responsible defensive culture; growth in the games of Bargnani, Ed Davis and DeMar DeRozan; and just enough losses to open the possibility of a high lottery pick.
Friday's game figured to be one-sided with Jose Calderon (swollen eye) and Jerryd Bayless (partially torn left oblique muscle) joining Bargnani on the sidelines. That meant Justin Dentmon, Ben Uzoh and Alan Anderson played significant minutes – "I didn't sleep last night worrying about getting the ball across centre," said Casey - and it didn't help that DeMar DeRozan stared off 1-for-5 as the Raptors went nine minutes without a bucket in the first quarter, shooting an awful 18.2 per-cent. Yet they were down just 36-30 at the half-time, due in part to the fact that Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, whose team was playing its second game of three consecutive, used his bench heavily and due to the fact that Rajon Rondo seemed sleep-walking, missing his only shot while dishing out eight assists. In the second half, DeRozan started to take advantage of the size mis-match against Avery Bradley and the Raptors went on a 17-4 run to hold a 15-point lead in the fourth.
"Games like this reinforce what we talk about, as far as defensive toughness," said Casey, whose team is 21-39. "They (the Celtics) are playing for home-court advantage, and we are playing for pride and culture."
DeRozan needs to assert himself down the stretch to finish strongly and so does Davis. DeRozan finished with 22 points and iced free throws down the stretch. "I told him those were huge," Casey said afterward. "That's what I mean by being a 'closer.' You go to the rim, you have to get greedy. You have to get your and-ones, and you do that by concentrating after you hear the whistle."
Paul Pierce had 18 points to lead the 34-25 Celtics, but he and Kevin Garnett never managed to put their stamp on a game in which the Raptors had 10 multiple-stops.
Davis was up against Kevin Garnett on Friday, and now he has back to back games against Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks. Jonas Valanciunas is coming like a train and at least one high draft pick and likely a free agent, so there's 2012-2013 minutes waiting to be claimed.
"Next year is a different animal," said Casey. "The things that we missed games for now can't happen next year." He was talking specifically about Bargnani's health, but the message was for much broader consumption.