Keeping pace with Raps

MIKE GANTER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

MIAMI -- It has been 19 weeks since Jermaine O'Neal put most of his Indiana experience behind him.

There still are some reminders of his eight seasons there, like the Pacers jogging shorts that still travel with the Raptors centre. And there always will be the memories. Recently in Orlando he was reminiscing about how the Indianapolis Colts and the Pacers would hang out together and attend each other's games until the Pacers' image problems made it unwise for the Colts to keep those ties.

But with each day, O'Neal becomes less a Pacer and more a Raptor. The deeper we get into the season, the more thankful Bryan Colangelo has to be that he decided to pull the trigger on that off-season deal that sent T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, the Raps' first-round pick and Maceo Baston to Indy in exchange for O'Neal and a pick that turned into Nathan Jawai.

O'Neal is not quite ready to proclaim himself all the way back to his old form following two seasons of knee problems, but all the indications are there that he's not far off.

He talks about the return of that "burst" in his legs that allows him to back a defender down and then roll to the hoop and still have that soft touch off the glass. Even five games ago, that move often ended in a shot toward the rim but a shot that didn't find its way into the basket. Now those shots are falling.

"My legs don't feel as wobbly as they did maybe a week or so ago," he said of the difference in his game. "Everything is feeling pretty good. The cardio feels great. I feel strong. I feel really strong."

In the past five games O'Neal is averaging 15 points and 13.5 rebounds a game. He's blocking and altering shots and bailing his teammates out defensively on a nightly basis.

"It's still coming, it's still a work in progress, but the key to me getting better offensively and get in rhythm is to continue to pound the boards and play defence and try and get some easy ones by running the floor hard. That gives me an opportunity to post up in the middle of the lane and also helps with my legs getting stronger."

There was a moment late in the third quarter Wednesday in Miami that demonstrated better than anything O'Neal or anyone could say about how much better he is feeling.

Raptors coach Sam Mitchell had just pulled both O'Neal and Chris Bosh off the floor to rest the final couple of minutes of the quarter and O'Neal was smiling and laughing and carrying on. Sure the Raptors were up by 14 at that point, but having watched O'Neal in similar situations earlier in the season, O'Neal never looked to be enjoying the game. He either was shaking his head over another foul the refs had called on him or was staring off into space with the kind of pained expression one equates with a guy just not sure why all this was happening to him.

But he seems to be having a lot of fun right now.

The telltale measuring stick for O'Neal that he is rounding into his old all-star form comes when the opposition doubles him in the post, like they did Wednesday in Miami.

"That's when you kind of see that you are getting back to where you used to be," he said. "When teams start to send guards at you and sit in your lap, that's telling you they respect what you can do offensively. The great thing about playing here is we have guys who can knock down shots and I feel comfortable every time I pass it out to those guys that they can make a play. Every time they double I'm just going to kick it out."

In short, you can see O'Neal getting more comfortable in the Raptors offence with each game. Both he and Bosh continue to establish the most effective spacing that will allow both to get the most out of their respective talents and there has been progress there as well.

Is it any wonder O'Neal is smiling with more and more frequency?


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