Bargnani sets tone

Raptorsí Jose Calderon drives against the Cavaliers at the Air Canada Centre last night. (Mark...

Raptorsí Jose Calderon drives against the Cavaliers at the Air Canada Centre last night. (Mark O'Neill, Sun Media)

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 4:36 AM ET

When the Raptors drafted Andrea Bargnani first overall in 2006, they saw a 7-footer who could shoot from long range, put the ball on the floor and do all the things big men are supposed to do, like rebound and block shots.

Over his first three seasons in the NBA, Bargnani had shown flashes of his vast arsenal, but rarely did the 24-year-old put it all together for a long stretch of time, though he began to show flashes of brilliance in the second half of last season.

But last night, the quiet Italian aptly demonstrated all the skills that make him such an intriguing player, and potential NBA all-star.

Though Bargnani was forced on to the bench for much of the second half because of foul trouble, the fourth-year Raptor electrified the crowd at the Air Canada Centre, scoring 28 points, 21 in the first half, as Toronto opened the regular season with a 101-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, a supposed NBA contender this year that now is 0-2.

"I was talking about that with a friend the other day. I was saying if Andrea gets going, if he's scoring the basketball a lot, then we're going to be tough to beat," said Raptors forward Chris Bosh, who had a rather big game himself. "He had a great second half of (last) season, but we haven't had that consistency with him scoring so many points. So that's a plus for us."

"I think there's not too many 7-footers who can do the things he can do," added Toronto point guard Jose Calderon, who picked up 11 assists. "Maybe (Dirk) Nowitzki is the only one."

Not many hoops experts predicted last night's outcome.

With nine new players in the lineup, the Raptors had gone 2-6 in the pre-season and the LeBron James-led Cavaliers, boosted this season by the presence of The Big Aristotle, Shaquille O'Neal, were said to be burning after dropping their home opener to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.

But the Raptors used a raucous ACC crowd in their favour, playing solid team defence to hold the Cavaliers to 35% from the field and preventing James from exploding for one of his patented huge games, though the perennial all-star did manage 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists.

"I thought our guys really responded to the crowd," head coach Jay Triano said. "The energy level was high (and) we showed them as many bodies as we could, we challenged shots and we cleaned up our defensive rebounding as the game went on."

Bosh scored 21 points with 16 rebounds and received a standing ovation from the crowd when he left the game with 15 seconds remaining.

O'Neal played only 25 minutes and picked up seven boards and 12 points

But it was Bargnani who set the tone early. On his first basket, the game's first basket, he put the ball on the floor and charged around Anderson Varejao for the dunk.

A few seconds later, he nailed a three with O'Neal in his face. Shortly after that, he blocked a shot and on the same play scored the fast break layup.

The question always was: Can the low-key Italian bring everything he has on a more consistent level? The season is only one game old, but so far so good.

Small forward Hedo Turkoglu quietly had a solid game with 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists and did his part, along with Bargnani, Bosh and Rasho Nesterovic to keep O'Neal in check.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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