Raps hammer Pacers

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

In the pre-game shootaround yesterday, Andrea Bargnani raised eyebrows by using his broken English to ask the Raptors coaching staff a rare question.

Then, the seven-foot Italian went out on the court and showed 18,075 more people at the Air Canada Centre just how much more comfortable he is feeling these days.

The No. 1 overall pick continued to exhibit important signs of improvement yesterday, making good decisions at both ends of the court while scoring a bench-leading 14 points to help the Raptors beat the Indiana Pacers 92-83. It was Toronto's second win in the past three games.

Since the Raptors made a conscious effort to use Bargnani four games ago, he has averaged 11.5 points while draining all 11 of his free throws. But perhaps the most encouraging moment came before the game when the quiet Bargnani spoke up to ask coach Sam Mitchell something about defence.

"Now, he is ready to play. I think it's just the beginning."

Jose Calderon on teammate Andrea Bargnani

"There is no way two weeks ago Andrea would have said a word," Mitchell said. "You had to basically go to him and just keep prodding: 'Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?'

"And you had to be careful about doing that because you didn't want the guy to think you are insulting him 10 times over again. But (yesterday when Mitchell said): 'Guys, anybody got any questions?' he came right out and said: 'Coach, what about this, this, this and this?' I was like: 'Whoa.'"

Bargani elicited a similar reaction from the crowd several times yesterday. His best moments came early in the second quarter when he nailed two three-pointers and drove the lane for a scoop to propel the Raptors into a season-best 27-point lead.

Naturally, the Raptors almost coughed up that advantage as the Pacers whittled the big lead down to four points in the third quarter.

But that's when the bench -- fantastic all game -- really picked it up. Joey Graham made a couple of tip-ins to start the fourth quarter and followed that with a dunk, putting the Raptors up by 17.

The Raptors bench -- Bargnani, Graham (12 points), Jose Calderon (13) and Rasho Nesterovic, with four points and seven rebounds, after sitting out the past two games -- outscored the Indiana reserves 33-24.

"We wanted no differentiation between the first group and second group," said Graham, who also is showing further signs of promise. "We wanted to bring the same energy level."

Bargnani, whose first instinct in the opening nine games of the season was to shoot almost from the moment he touched the ball, has added variety to his game. He made a nice pass to Jorge Garbajosa for a three and also had a beautiful give-and-go with Nesterovic for two points. Bargnani has four assists in his past three games after notching zero in his first nine.

"How can you compare one game where you play 30 minutes to one game where you play eight minutes?" Bargnani said when asked about his improvement. "You can't compare."

But everybody else is, and the results are favourable.

"It's his rookie season," Calderon said. "He needs these nine, 10 games to see how the NBA really is, because sometimes the pre-season is not the same. Now, he is ready to play. I think it's just the beginning."

And now comes the hard part. The Raptors, 0-7 on the road this season, play back-to-back games tomorrow and Wednesday in Oklahoma City and Dallas, respectively.

---

REPORT CARD

B+ Offence: With an ailing Bosh lacking his usual explosiveness, bench players such as Andrea Bargnani, Joey Graham and Jose Calderon picked up the slack.

B+ Defence: The Pacers' point total was a season low for a Raptors opponent. The Raps also held a 49-43 edge in rebounds and held Indiana to 37.2% shooting.


Photos