Andrea Bargnani’s long, torturous wait is nearly over.
Toronto’s best player and leading scorer is expected to return to the lineup either on Saturday in Detroit or Sunday at the ACC after missing the past 20 games because of a strained calf.
Bargnani re-injured the muscle back on Jan. 25 in Utah — Toronto’s second stunning West Coast win in a row and the team was humming along at a shocking 6-7 at that point.
The Raptors never expected Bargnani to be out this long, but were extremely cautious since wins are not a priority this rebuilding season.
The club went just 7-19 without him though, and Bargnani hated every minute of his stint on the sidelines.
“It was really frustrating, especially because I got injured after we got two great wins in Phoenix and Utah,” Bargnani said of his forced vacation.
“We were really starting to roll.”
Head coach Dwane Casey said Bargnani was moving his feet well on defence and shooting the ball at a good clip on Thursday.
What will getting Bargnani’s 23.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and newfound attention to detail do for the Raptors?
“It gives us a boost. Guys are happy that he’s back, excited that he’s back. It’s big for all of us,” said Casey, who admitted he would be cautious after playing Bargnani 82 combined minutes after he had just returned from a nearly two-week layoff.
“We don’t want to over-extend him and re-injure it in any way whatsoever,” Casey said, adding that would mean going against Bargnani’s wishes to play more minutes.
“I’ve got to protect him from himself and make sure we don’t over-extend him. He’s too valuable to us. Our rebuilding process. He’s the major foundation of it. Have to make sure he’s healthy, ease him back in to things.
“He’s going to be fatigued a little bit. We’ve just got to help him make good decisions.”
Bargnani understands the situation.
“Of course I agree, I agree with whatever decision he makes,” Bargnani said, adding he was completely pain-free.
“I’m out of rhythm, out of shape, but that’s going to come with the work,” he said.
Guard DeMar DeRozan is playing some of the best basketball of his career — maybe the best period, if you consider the quality of his all-around game at the moment — but was struggling mightily when Bargnani was healthy.
Bargnani was happy to see his teammate find his game in his absence and both expect the success to continue.
“That’s what he can do, that’s what he has to do, that’s what we need him to do,” Bargnani said.
“Once Drea comes back, that’s another great player that we play off. Everybody gets easier shots,” said the USC product.
“(It’s a) better opportunity for me to get easy shots and the other players on the court to get easier shots as well.”
Casey said he will try not to mess with his big man rotation too much. Ed Davis will continue to see minutes, particularly because he has now proven to be a decent option as a centre. Earlier in the year, Casey only wanted to play the sophomore at power forward.
With Bargnani, Amir Johnson and Davis all able to play either big man spots and James Johnson and Linas Kleiza able to switch between small and power forward, the coach has options, though Aaron Gray and Jamaal Magloire will likely see less time.
As for Bargnani, he has decided not to think about what could have been – such as his first all-star selection — but instead, to what lies ahead.
“I was pretty angry (that the injury cost him a chance of going to Orlando) … of course the all-star is a pretty good dream, the only way to achieve it is to keep working,” he said.
“I got injured, so it’s not a question I’m asking anymore, it’s not important.”
What is important is seeing what these Raptors can do at full strength.
Casey’s done a heck of a job getting the most out of a club missing its premier performer.
He did even better with Bargnani.
It will be interesting to see if it happens again.