Raptors pumped about Bargnani's return

Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani and  Sacramento Kings Donte Greene  during 1st half NBA basketball...

Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani and Sacramento Kings Donte Greene during 1st half NBA basketball action at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto Jan. 11, 2012. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI Agency)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:05 AM ET

LOS ANGELES - Short of leaving the dead of winter in Toronto for spring time-like temperatures here in Los Angeles, nothing can lift the spirit of a team more than the return of its leading scorer.

So when Andrea Bargnani took the floor for a late afternoon practice at the Student Activities Center gym on the picturesque UCLA campus, the effect was palpable.

If you had to pick one difference maker on this team as it is currently made up, Bargnani would be right at the top of the list.

Whether Bargnani makes his return Sunday in L.A. against the Clippers or Tuesday in Phoenix will be determined by how the big Italian feels when he wakes up Sunday morning.

With a 12:30 tipoff local time, it’s a short window between his first practice (Saturday late afternoon) and potentially his first game since he strained his left calf in a tilt with Sacramento six games back.

It’s not a coincidence that the Raps have not won since Bargnani was injured. He was leading the team in scoring with 22.3 points a night while giving his team 6.5 rebounds a game and playing solid defence for perhaps the first time in his career.

In his absence the Raptors averaged exactly 79 points a night, an output that even with a better defensive team makes winning all but impossible.

Bargnani wasn’t ready to circle Sunday as his return date yet. He sees no point in making any definitive statements, but if it’s not Sunday in Los Angeles it will almost assuredly be Tuesday in Phoenix after one more practice.

Bargnani isn’t the kind of athlete who blows his own horn, but he sees the impact his absence has had on the team.

“When I’m in the post I think I help a lot, even if I don’t score,” Bargnani said. “Amir (Johnson) for example, when rolls to the basket he’s got more people with him. If I’m on the floor my guy usually stays with me so he’s not helping (on Amir).”

And while he’s sure his absence affects DeMar DeRozan as well, he admits he doesn’t really watch the guards that much.

“I watch the big guys,” he said.

Like Bargnani, head coach Dwane Casey is hesitant to put a return date on his power forward, but like everyone around the team, he is champing at the bit for that day to arrive.

“You definitely have to honour him at the three-point line because of his shooting ability,” Casey said. “So spacing gives you one thing. He gives you an opportunity to post someone, gives you the opportunity to run mid-screen and roll which opens up the middle for Amir and our big guys to roll to the basket.

“A guy like that gives you so much just by his presence on the floor, not just his scoring but the spacing of the defence.”

Twin a Bargnani return with the expected return of back-up point guard Jerryd Bayless and there’s even a sense of optimism despite the fact the Raptors are beginning one of the toughest road trips of the year with a seven-game losing streak already in the books.

mike.ganter@sunmedia.ca


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