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Bargnani beginning to put it all together in his fifth year

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The Sports Network
12/10/2010 9:55:25 AM
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New York, NY (Sports Network) - The lights, the organ, the jeers; the Garden.

The Night.

That's how Andrea Bargnani and Toronto Raptor fans will remember that frigid December evening in Manhattan where the former No.1 draft pick cleared yet another checkpoint in his drive towards stardom.

And by the time the Raps big man had left Madison Square Gardens, it was anything but cold.

In the "World's Most Famous Arena", where players often succumb to the aura and intimidation of playing on basketball's hollowed ground, Bargnani heated up the arena and showed the league a glimpse of what has the potential to be a dominant NBA career.

The stage didn't swallow Bargnani - despite being on the wrong end of a win that pitted him against fellow countryman Danilo Gallinari - because Bargnani isn't most players. That is, if you believe the pre-draft analysis that included his well-documented "off the charts" results on the Caliper Profile. Used to measure one's capacity to perform in a variety of situations, Bargnani's Caliper score showed a man oblivious to criticism, anxiety and all that comes with the expectations of a top pick.

The enigmatic seven-footer has been just that during his four-plus years in the Association, and the process for evaluating him has been exhausted in this very space before. But in the midst of his career-high 41-point, seven-rebound and six-assist effort against the New York Knicks on Wednesday - one that included a unnerving game-tying three-pointer with seconds left on the clock - Bargnani left two teams, a sold out crowd and an entire league left to ponder just how special this player could become.

It wasn't what he did, it was how.

Refusing to be chewed up by a hostile New York crowd, Bargnani put on a performance unlike previous ones that typically see him set up shop on the perimeter and work his offense outside-in. Instead, the fifth-year center took advantage of a litany of mismatches, overpowering several Knicks by settling in the post and using his unique set of skills to control the Raps' offense for four quarters - another unusual footnote in a game that clearly served as a sign of things to come.

"You look at the numbers he's putting up, he's becoming a guy you have to game plan for," his former coach Sam Mitchell told the Globe and Mail on Thursday. "The way he's scoring the basketball the way he's shooting it, you got to game plan for him. He's putting up some unbelievable numbers."

Whether it was Wilson Chandler, Shawne Williams, Ronny Turiaf or Amar'e Stoudemire, Bargnani abused one defender after another by posting up his man and either fading away with uncontested ease, pivoting and driving past his slower counterpart or recognizing double teams and displaying his exceptional passing abilities by finding the open man in the corner.

"He's a young player, he's a very intelligent player, and he can flat-out shoot the basketball," Mitchell added.

The fact the Knicks allow the second-most points in the league is irrelevant because the shift in offensive strategy in which coach Jay Triano, his staff and Bargnani implemented into Wednesday night's 113-110 heart-breaking loss is a microcosm of the underlying point at hand; Bargnani is a matchup nightmare when used effectively.

It bears qualifying because Bargnani has a tendency to grow tireless and frustrated for stretches of the game when either his shot isn't falling or the offense isn't being run through him. If this game proved anything, it was two things.

The Raptors are a dangerous team when they run the offense through their scoring leader - eureka! - and Bargnani has seemingly conquered the strong- start, poor-finish hurdle.

Another reason why his 39 minutes of action catapulted his game into superstar territory - assuming he builds off this career-defining night - was that he's starting to believe he actually belongs in that discussion.

For Bargnani and Raptor followers, the revelation is apparent in how he reacts to what has pained those very fans for the better part of his career; when his teammates suddenly ignore his hot hand and let his game grow stale for portions of a game.

Aware of his dominance and his obvious impact, Bargnani was having no part of such antics on Wednesday, repeatedly barking for the ball in the post or reminding his teammates and coaches they needed to lean on him in order to knock off a solid Knicks squad.

It was almost like a new player.

When Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni sent Stoudemire out to cover Bargnani by bothering him with his length and high energy, he quickly set his trademark high screen to force the switch to enable a better look.

And contrary to popular belief, most of Stoudemire's damage - his sixth straight game of 30 or more points - wasn't at the hands of Bargnani's defensive inefficiencies. The Italian big man irritated the Knicks' MVP all first half, using his size to push Stoudemire out of his comfort zone and make him shoot jumpers. During Stoudemire's explosion in the second half and particularly fourth quarter, it was often courtesy of pick and rolls and mismatches off screens.

In fact, Bargnani would have had double-digit rebound numbers if not for his improved, exaggerated box out that allowed for his teammates to scoop up the leftovers that prevented Knicks big men from grabbing them.

The critics will undoubtedly call to the two or three rebounds he didn't haul in or his 12-point dud the game before.

But just like the lights he's not blinded by and the jeers he doesn't hear, Bargnani's not phased.

Not on that night, not on any.

Andrea Bargnani (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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