It's time for Bargnani to step up

FRANK ZICARELLI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

The next step in Andrea Bargnani's evolution as a frontline NBA player is to step up against more formidable foes that roam the paint.

It's one thing to post numbers against undersized centres on teams that like to play small-ball, but for Bargnani it must be about imposing one's will against legitimate bigs.

That step began last night when the Raptors began their three-game road swing, the team's final extended away period of the season, with a 133-133 loss to Shaquille O'Neal at the Phoenix Suns.

Their next stop is tomorrow night in Dallas and a meeting with the Mavericks' Erick Dampier, followed by a Tuesday tussle against Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets.

It is far from a defining moment for Bargnani, but a stretch against three bigs that matches Bargnani's finesse game against physically imposing centres.

Yao is the most perimeter-oriented of the three Bargnani will face, a post presence who can step out and knock down shots.

O'Neal scores around the basket, but is vulnerable in pick and roll sets given Shaq Daddy's lack of foot speed.

But O'Neal, coming off the back end of a back-to-back set, dominated the Raptors last night with 45 points and 11 rebounds.

The ball hardly moves into Dampier's hands, but the big guy is serviceable and is a load when an errant shot has to be retrieved.

While Bargnani's recent numbers are nice, he averaged 27.0 points in back-to-back wins over New York and Minnesota heading into last night's date in the desert, he has yet to assert himself against physically imposing centres and on the road.

Until he is able to establish himself against legitimate shot blockers, the jury will still be out on Bargnani.

This isn't a knock on Bargnani because his game has gotten better as his confidence continues to improve under interim head coach Jay Triano.

He now has to expand his game by being more physical and by attacking the rim when matched up against bona fide bigs.

His ability to put the ball on the floor as a seven-footer and Bargnani's ability to step out present all sorts of problems for the opposition.

When he's not settling for jumpers, Bargnani forces teams to spread their defence and gives his teammates better spacing.

Bargnani isn't exactly the most quotable player inside the Raptors dressing room.

He prefers to focus on the present and entering last night's tip, his mind-set was on the Suns and Shaq.

"Shaq is obviously a difficult player to guard for everybody, not only for me,'' Bargnani told reporters. "He's the only one so big.

"It takes a team effort against O'Neal. It's not like I'll have to guard him by myself."

But any team that plays well defensively must have each guy on the floor guard his position.

That is where Bargnani is lacking.

Witness his matchup against Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

In last Wednesday's visit to Toronto by the Cavs, Big Z torched Bargnani for 22 points on 11 of 17 shooting.

Bargnani didn't make a single trip to the foul line, went five of 14 from the field and was held to 11 points in a 93-76 Raptors loss.

Whatever noise the Raptors are able to create down the stretch, a lot will depend on Bargnani.

There's still a chance of Toronto appearing in the post-season, but so much will depend on what unfolds during this three-game stretch.

If the Raptors can somehow take two, they return home to a schedule that sees Toronto playing nine of its next 11 at the Air Canada Centre.

Most of Bargnani's biggest nights have been produced on Toronto's home court, which speaks to a guy who has yet to shed an image of being soft.

Entering last night, Bargnani started in each of the Raptors' 27 games played this calendar year.

Only twice during that span has Bargnani been held to single-digit scoring, a foul-prone night in New Jersey and that regrettable shooting debacle by the Raptors in Memphis.

Bargnani has come a long way and should no longer by viewed as a bust.

Now comes the time to get better, nastier and more imposing.


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