Flashes of greatness

FRANK ZICARELLI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

As the NBA's mundane and meaningless pre-season continued last night, there were glimpses of just how good the Raptors can be.

The first sign was evident on Toronto's fifth possession, a sign of the changing times that surround this year's version.

The high screen and roll, one of the most basic of basketball's offensive sets, was executed to perfection.

In the past few years, the person setting the screen would often be Chris Bosh.

Last night at the Air Canada Centre, where the local faithful got to witness the revamped Raptors for the first time, the person setting the screen was Jermaine O'Neal.

There was an almost muted response when O'Neal was introduced, but his potential to take the Raptors to another level cannot be overstated.

Clearly, the guy isn't quite in game shape and his late rotation on a Wilson Chandler dunk underlined that fact.

Later, when O'Neal attempted a mid-range heave off the dribble, it drew iron, one of the few shots Toronto missed en route to its 113-111 win over the visiting New York Knicks.

But the fact remains that O'Neal is a game changer, someone whose presence will change the way opponents defend the Raptors. When the Raptors want to run their high screen and roll, a bread and butter play, they now have both Bosh and O'Neal.

With Jose Calderon running the show from the point, the Knicks had no answer, whether it was Bosh or O'Neal flashing.

Teams, once they get to see the set with more frequency, will try to disrupt the play by trapping Calderon, by picking up Calderon at half court or even applying full-court pressure. No matter how teams adjust -- something that won't be known until the regular season tips off -- last night's glimpse, no matter how brief, shows just how lethal Toronto's three-headed monster will be.

Basketball has seen all kinds of unstoppable sets, be it on the perimeter or in the paint.

But the Raptors have the potential to show the NBA something it hasn't seen.

When O'Neal's trade from Indianapolis was made official back in July, Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell made mention of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, two big men who dominated the league and helped the San Antonio Spurs become the game's most dominant team.

Two games into the pre-season and it's hard to figure out what the Raptors have in store when it comes to a defensive philosophy.

Afterall, teams don't show their hands in exhibition play, when the priority is to give unproven players minutes and ensure established players stay healthy.

OFFENSIVE THREAT

Duncan and Robinson were among the best defenders at their positions, the two pillars San Antonio basically used to forge a dynasty.

No one is suggesting for a New York minute that Bosh and O'Neal will rival the defensive presence and prowess of Duncan and Robinson.

But offensively, Toronto's tandem has the potential to dominate like no other combo. Both can pass, roll to the basket and knock down shots.

If teams do trap Calderon by leaving Bosh or O'Neal, one will be left open and both can make open shots. With Calderon firmly in control, the coming season has the makings of something special.

Not since the days of Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis have the Raptors been able to put on the floor two legitimate big bodies that can play at a high level.

Oakley and Davis worked so well together, communicated and developed a chemistry that turned the once-journeyman Davis into an all-star.

The Bosh-O'Neal combo is a work in progress, but progress can be seen.

When something needed to be said on the defensive end, it was Bosh barking out instructions.

There is much work ahead for the Raptors, who showed signs of vulnerability against the perimeter-happy Knicks.

But that is the essence of pre-season basketball.

Assuming O'Neal's left knee holds up to the rigours of an 82-game schedule, assuming Calderon can handle the extended minutes and the added responsibility, the Raptors are more than capable of advancing past the first round of the playoffs since Davis and Oakley and Vince Carter formed the nucleus.

All it took was that one high screen and roll to show everyone that the Raptors will be a team to contend with in the East.


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