Time to go big

FRANK ZICARELLI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

There is no question that Jermaine O'Neal soon will return to the Raptors lineup.

It may arrive tomorrow night when O'Neal returns to Indianapolis, the place he once called home.

It may happen Sunday, when the Raptors welcome Steve Nash back to Canada.

The question that seems to be on the lips of most basketball observers is whether O'Neal should be coming off the bench or if he should assume his normal spot in the starting unit.

Conventional wisdom suggests O'Neal, at least until he gets comfortable, would be better suited as a reserve.

The prevailing sentiment is that Andrea Bargnani is playing at such a high level that he should remain as a starter.

The way Bargnani kept the Raptors within range of the Chicago Bulls last night at the ACC, with his long-range shooting, it would be foolish not to keep feeding him the basketball.

Bargnani has done nothing in O'Neal's absence to warrant a change, except prove to the many naysayers that the guy can play well for extended stretches provided he is given consistent minutes and touches.

Before O'Neal was sidelined with a deep knee contusion in a Dec. 29 loss against Golden State, the six-time all-star was finally starting to show signs of his dominant past.

Before his injury, O'Neal was demanding the basketball and forcing teams to double him.

It's an interesting dilemma for the Raptors, one interim head coach Jay Triano has deftly avoided, preferring instead to focus on the moment.

But the moment of truth will soon arrive, a decision that likely will determine the balance of Toronto's season.

With the Feb. 19 trade deadline looming, there will be plenty of rumours surrounding the Raptors and O'Neal.

But the Raptors have the luxury of time and an opportunity to revisit an experiment that didn't have a chance of playing itself out.

It's a risky proposition, to say the least, but the team must go with a starting frontcourt of Bargnani, Chris Bosh and O'Neal.

When Toronto unveiled its version of a big three earlier in the season, Bargnani was forced to defend players with superior athleticism, exposing him on the perimeter.

He has been tugged and pulled in so many different directions, it's no wonder he lost his confidence.

Last night, for example, there was no reason why Toronto couldn't have started Bargnani at small forward, assuming O'Neal was healthy.

As much as Bargnani got exposed when matched up against the likes of a LeBron James or a Carmelo Anthony, he can just as easily be sheltered by throwing a few zone looks at teams.

In addition, as long as Bargnani can keep his man in front of him, perhaps his new-found confidence will allow him to better defend the perimeter.

O'Neal will at least block shots and rebound.

Bosh went the entire first half against the Bulls without hauling down a single board.

The Raptors were getting pounded on the glass and surrendering far too many second-chance points.

During one sequence, the Raptors allowed Chicago four looks at the basket, prompting fans at the ACC to boo the home side with a venom reserved for Vince Carter.

O'Neal, given his low-post presence, tends to clog the paint, but he can easily operate in the mid-post.

The Bosh/O'Neal/Bargnani experiment lasted all of seven games with the Raptors going 2-5 during that stretch.

By going big, the Raps will give themselves the best chance of winning at a time when they are coming up short.

Bargnani is in such a groove that he can't be asked to come off the bench.

O'Neal is not a backup and he was playing well until his setback in Oakland. He no longer has that lift to his game that made him so unstoppable, but he's tough.

What the Raptors must do is manage O'Neal's minutes and ego when he does come back.

What they must also do is go big or they may as well go home.


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