Andrea Bargnani wasn't the Toronto Raptors' best player yesterday afternoon, as he has been at times recently.
Besides, their impressive 110-88 win over the Dallas Mavericks, one of the NBA's elite teams, was too thorough to be reduced to the efforts of a single person.
But Chris Bosh could take a bow before Bargnani.
With the game on TV in his hometown of Dallas, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban - who would doubtless love to add a certain Dallas native to his lineup - sitting behind the Dallas bench at the Air Canada Centre, Bosh was brilliant. He delivered the kind of game the Raptors have come to expect from their franchise player this season: 23 points and 13 rebounds in an efficient 35 minutes of floor time.
That plus some spectacular play by their point-guard platoon - Jarrett Jack and Jose Calderon combined for 26 points, 14 assists, three steals and just one turnover - helped Toronto beat the second best team in the Western Conference and improve to 21-20 on the season and 10-3 in the past month.
But more and more this season Bosh has been getting help from frontcourt mate Bargnani.
Fair or not, the Mavericks always provide a convenient measuring stick for the progress of Bargnani, the first overall pick in the 2006 entry draft. He's often compared to Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas's anchor for more than a decade, the original deep-shooting European big man who is leading Dallas to its 10th consecutive season of 50 or more wins.
Bargnani is used to it: "For sure he's an example. He's a big guy who can shoot and moves pretty well and can do basically everything on the court. You can learn from him."
Bargnani is learning. He finished with 22 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots yesterday. He's averaging 17.2 points a game, 6.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots while shooting 47.2 per cent for the season - all heading for career highs. His fourth-quarter triple against the shot clock was the dagger yesterday afternoon in front of 19,004 fans, putting the Raptors up 21 points with six to play, though Toronto had been in control since blitzing Dallas 34-18 in the second quarter.
But the big Italian is gaining notice around the league for slowly but surely raising his game.
"He's getting better and better all the time," said Cuban, chatting while sitting on an exercise ball in the Dallas dressing room before the game. "He's getting more aggressive. He's taking advantage of his athleticism instead of just settling for threes. He had to realize he could take the bumps and grinds of the game first and now he's realizing it."
The best evidence came last week when Bargnani grabbed 29 rebounds in two games, the first time in his NBA career he managed consecutive double-figure rebounding outings.
Midway through his fourth season with the security of a five-year, $50-million (U.S.) contract in his pocket, the 24-year-old is showing signs that comparisons to Nowitzki, an eight-time all-star and the most recent member of the NBA's 20,000-point club, might be a reach, but is no longer grasping.
Ask Nowitzki, whom Bargnani turned away deep in the post defensively on more than one occasion and whom he left flailing on some early drives to the rim.
"He's way more athletic than I ever was in my career," said Nowitzki, who scored 10 points on his trademark rainbow midrange jumpers in the first quarter but only nine the rest of the game as he was hampered both by foul trouble and the Raptors' active, switching defence. "He's got a quick first step. What you have to do as a young player is improve year over year and I think he did that. He's always a tough matchup. … The sky's the limit."
For most of his 31/2 seasons with the Raptors, there's been no limit to the Bargnani enigma. This was a shooter who has shot more than 50 per cent from the floor in a full month only twice in his career; a seven-footer who rebounds like a six-footer.
His teammates suggest he's never been shy of confidence, but those who know him best suggest he's only now believing in the impact he can have in an NBA game and accepting nothing less.
"In terms of confidence and understanding and realizing he can do it, yes, he's turned a corner," said Raptors vice-president Maurizio Gherardini, who discovered Bargnani as a teenager in Rome.
One way or the other, Bargnani stands to play a pivotal role in the Raptors' future.
If the club can keep Bosh, it will be Bargnani's development that could tip the balance if Toronto is going to become a contender in the Eastern Conference. If they can't keep Bosh, Bargnani becomes the team's primary building block and it will be his maturation that will determine if there is anything worthwhile to build.
Bargnani's not the Raptors best player, but he's their most important.Report Typo/Error
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