PORTLAND -- Jermaine O'Neal knew it would take time to find his game, his role and his comfort level with the Raptors.
Almost from the moment they acquired the six-time all-star from the Indiana Pacers, O'Neal's presence in a frontline that features Chris Bosh led many to predict that the Raptors were capable of winning 50 games and competing for home court in the post-season.
Despite some obvious deficiencies to the Raptors roster, namely a lack of depth and athleticism, the widely held belief was that the Bosh/O'Neal combo would put so much pressure on opponents that any team shortcomings would be masked.
In time, perhaps the Raptors will get their house in order, but so much will depend on what moves general manager Bryan Colangelo is willing to make.
But for the time being, the Raptors will ride Bosh and O'Neal, who took turns leading the team in its past two games -- not surprisingly wins, as the Raptors resumed their road swing with a stop in Portland last night.
For O'Neal, it all began in Portland, which drafted the high schooler from South Carolina in the first round of the 1996 draft.
Fittingly, it is only now that he is beginning to find his legs as a Raptor and more importantly beginning to feel like the player who was once an MVP candidate.
"I didn't think the game would be as fast,'' O'Neal said in trying to summon the words to describe his basketball resurrection as a Raptor.
"I didn't play much in the pre-season and I struggled to begin the season."
Those struggles, barring injury, now seem to be behind him.
The Raptors will go only as far as Bosh and O'Neal take them and even then they need someone else to make plays.
Despite back-to-back wins entering last night, the Raptors haven't exactly turned the corner.
Both the L.A. Clippers, who were minus Marcus Camby, and the Sacramento Kings aren't among the league's elite.
Neither team is particularly imposing on the frontcourt, which allowed Bosh and O'Neal to simply to take over and impose their collective will.
More than anything, basketball is a game of matchups and the Raptors matched up well against the Clippers and Kings.
What shouldn't be overlooked or dismissed, though, was the manner in which Bosh and O'Neal lifted the team.
Bosh's 31-point game in L.A., including an emphatic fourth-quarter performance, was followed by O'Neal's season-high 36-point masterpiece, the first time in more than a year in which he netted 30 or more points.
"You could see it in his eyes,'' interim head coach Jay Triano said of O'Neal. "His focus before games is a lot better.
"He's enjoying basketball now and it's showing."
Players of O'Neal's ilk need reminders of their greatness and not the patronizing pats on the back given by hangers-on.
Someone such as O'Neal, who has heard all the criticism and concerns that he's incapable of dominating the game in the wake of injuries and age, needs to destroy an opponent, which he did against the Kings.
"I'm getting that feel again,'' O'Neal said. "I know where the sweet spots are on the floor."
Triano says he has a list of plays designed to get the ball into O'Neal's hands.
It's a testament to Triano's ability as a head coach that he drew up plays during a timeout against the Kings, sets to showcase O'Neal that resulted in baskets.
The one-two punch of Bosh and O'Neal remains a work in progress.
Once they get on the same page and once management is able to address some needs, only then will the Raptors be considered as serious players in the East.