TORONTO - The Toronto Raptors slowed down the Oklahoma City Thunder by holding point guard Russell Westbrook in check.
That was Friday and they were successful.
Sunday afternoon another huge task awaits.
His name is Amar’e Stoudemire and while he wasn’t anywhere close to the deciding factor in the first meeting between these two teams, circumstances have changed in the interim.
When the New York Knicks and Raptors opened the season back on Oct. 27 with the Knicks escaping with a 98-93 win, Stoudemire was still developing a chemistry with a whole new slew of teammates and Reggie Evans was not only healthy, but fresh at the start of a new season.
Skip forward some 51/2 weeks and Evans is just getting an eight-week stint on the injured list started while Stoudemire is giving every indication he and his new teammates have ironed out whatever kinks they had earlier.
All Stoudemire has done in the past three games is average 35.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in what were, not surprisingly, three Knicks wins.
In fact, the Knicks have won eight of their past nine because Stoudemire has been unstoppable in and around his opponent’s basket.
Evans, who manhandled him in a pre-season game the week before the season opener, took the former Phoenix Suns star out of his game on opening night.
While Stoudemire did wind up with 20 points, he also committed a season-high 10 turnovers.
Evans got a lot of credit for that, but he won’t get the chance to do it again on Sunday.
The Raptors don’t have an Evans clone to replace him but are getting by with a combination of improved work on the glass from just about all five spots in the lineup.
Andrea Bargnani, who was getting plenty of grief early on for his allergic-like reaction to hitting the boards, is suddenly putting the kind of effort into rebounding that he normally reserves for just the offensive end.
Sunday against Serge Ibaka and the Thunder, Bargnani pulled down a season-high 12 boards including three off the offensive glass.
Bargnani said it’s just a matter of doing what he has to do with Evans out.
“I don’t really think about it,” Bargnani said. “We all know Reggie is out so everybody has to rebound the ball and that’s about it.”
In the three games since Evans was hurt, Bargnani is averaging nine rebounds a night, up substantially from the 5.6 he is averaging for the year.
Bargnani said part of it is a more aggressive attitude he has this year, something he has to maintain if he’s going to remain the Raptors No. 1 option on offence.
Those new levels of involvement on the offensive end have him equally motivated at the defensive end.
“It’s easier because I have more taouches this year and more opportunity to be aggressive and to score the ball,” Bargnani said.
But as the chart that accompanies this column shows, Bargnani has been a much bigger factor on the boards in the games Evans has missed than in the one’s he has actually played.
The 12-board outburst on Friday also had something to do with the opponent Bargnani was up against, in the opinion of head coach Jay Triano.
“He was guarding a guy who was a lot closer to the basket as opposed to the guys he usually guard who are usually 15 to 17 feet out,” Triano said. “He went after it last night. He was very aggressive.”
Triano also feels that tweaking when and how often he rests Bargnani as he did on Friday could have been a factor.
“I don’t know if it was us managing his minutes and resting him a little bit more — twice in a half instead of just once for a longer period — but he just seems more energized when we do it that way.”
Whatever they’re doing it’s working. Now it’s just a matter of duplicating it on a nightly basis.