Moon shines bright

FRANK ZICARELLI, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

The Raptors have been waiting for a Moon sighting, a sign from the team's projected small forward that inroads were being made.

It arrived yesterday afternoon during Toronto's exercise in tedium against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers, the Raptors' opening-night opponent when NBA games begin to matter.

Even Sam Mitchell noticed Jamario Moon on the floor, a fact not lost on the head coach when he addressed the media in the aftermath of an 85-79 loss.

"That's just how he has to play for us,'' Mitchell said of Moon. "He has to be that X-factor. He has to be the guy to do all the little things and (yesterday) he did it."

Moon emerged as the feel-good story of last season, one of the best rags-to-riches story in recent NBA memory.

Undrafted and basically given no chance of playing on basketball's biggest stage, Mitchell took a chance on Moon, who in turn repaid the coach's confidence by giving the Raptors a defensive presence and an athletic piece.

When the Raptors trailed the Orlando Magic 2-0 in the opening round of the playoffs, Mitchell decided to insert Moon into the starting unit.

With Moon on the floor, the Raptors were re-energized and emerged with their only win in the five-game series.

Fast forward to this year.

Moon has been trying to put the ball on the floor more often and attack the rim rather than settle for perimeter shots.

He'll get plenty of open looks once teams begin to double team Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal.

But at the core of what Moon brings to the table is energy.

What he brought yesterday was a rebounding presence, finishing with a game-high 10 boards, getting in passing lanes and playing the edge that made him such an endearing figure last season.

"The pressure is always on me,'' Moon said. "I'm always going to play like I'm trying to make the team."

Barring something completely unforeseen, the Raptors will go with the starting rotation of O'Neal, Bosh, Moon, Anthony Parker and Jose Calderon.

Calderon isn't exactly the best on-the ball defender, but he's playing at such a high level that any defensive deficiency can be tolerated.

Parker will do what he always has done during his previous two years in Toronto, capable of dropping 20 points on any given night and playing hard.

The Bosh/O'Neal tandem continues to evolve and against the Sixers, O'Neal wasn't as reluctant to shoot.

O'Neal's fitness level needs upgrading, but he looked quicker and more decisive when he caught the ball in the post.

Once he establishes his turnaround jumper, O'Neal should take plenty of pressure off of Bosh.

And then there's Moon, Mitchell's X-factor who will be a factor, provided he plays with energy and defends.

During his rookie season, Moon played on instinct, reacting and adapting as the season unfolded.

The key for Moon is to be consistent.

Jump shots won't always drop, but the game's two constants remain unchanged -- defence and rebounding.

The Raptors also have to get tougher.

When Moon was fouled by Elton Brand, a play that should have resulted in a flagrant foul, Moon lost his willingness to attack the basket.

Moon should learn from the experience just as the Raptors' second unit should learn from yesterday's ineffective run in crunch time.

Whether the Raptors are able to get past the first round of the post-season all depends on their ability to defend and rebound.

O'Neal will help, though it's too early in the pre-season to glean how the Raptors want to defend, now that they have a legitimate shot-blocker.

Moon has to get better and yesterday he showed that he can get better.

Having now played three exhibition games with O'Neal, Moon sees a difference.

"It makes you feel comfortable because you know that if you get beat, you have a big guy in the back who is a great shot-blocker,'' Moon said.

"You don't want to get beat, but by having (O'Neal) back there, you have a little comfort zone."

Following yesterday, the Raptors were able to take comfort from Moon's play.


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