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Old 01-25-2012, 09:08 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Raptors SI: Bargnani now a leader

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The message was so important that the new coach was willing to fly to Italy to deliver it in person. It turned out that Dwane Casey wasn't able to arrange a trip overseas before the lockout started on July 1, but he was able to make his case in a phone call.

Afterward there was another call. Following the lockout there were more calls and a dinner. Every conversation was the same as the last.

"He was talking about defense right away," said Andrea Bargnani, the power forward of the Toronto Raptors. "It was his main focus. You could understand from day one in training camp: For the first three days every drill was about defense."

Bargnani, a 7-footer from Italy, was the Raptors' most talented player. He was the No. 1 pick of the 2006 draft, and his scoring average had risen each of the last three seasons to 21.4 points per game last year. But the Raptors had missed the playoffs each of the last three seasons and it was becoming easy to question their choice of Bargnani ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge, the All-NBA power forward of the Trail Blazers.

"I laugh at people who criticize [team president] Bryan Colangelo, for taking him No. 1," said Casey, who was an assistant coach of the champion Mavericks before he was hired by Toronto in June. "Because there's not a lot of 7-footers with his skill-set taking guys off the dribble."

At the same time, Casey understood his priority was to bring out that talent, to turn Bargnani into an All-Star capable of leading a playoff team. Bargnani, now 26, was ready to listen. "He's got the money, he's got the notoriety, he's got his commercials," said Casey. "He's got everything, so now all he's got to do is win. Build a foundation to win, and that's what we're doing now."

Their construction was put on hold when Bargnani suffered a strained calf that sidelined him for six games. They lost all six while averaging 81 points, which increased the load on their defense. But Bargnani returned Tuesday at Phoenix and his impact was immediate. He scored 36 points and the Raptors beat the Suns, 99-96, for the first time in eight years.

As important as Bargnani is offensively, the Raptors welcomed him back to help establish them at the other end as well. Their future, as Casey sees it, is as a defensive team, and they won't fulfill that ambition without the buy-in of their star.

So far the Raptors' defensive turnaround has been dramatic and impressive. They ranked No. 29 in field-goal defense while inviting opponents to convert 48.2 percent last year. This season they rank No. 5 in the same category at 41.9 percent.

"That's the hard way to come in as a coach," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "If you take a new job and you want to make everyone happy, tell them, 'We're going to score -- we're going to score more points.' And then everybody on the team loves you. When you say it the other way -- the way Case has done it -- there's not a lot of fans of that. Yet he's won them over, obviously, by watching how they play and how they defend.

Casey has been winning over his players by coaching the defense through Bargnani, a scorer who hadn't been viewed as a strong NBA defender. "They know I'm holding him accountable -- I'm holding everyone accountable," said Casey. "And that's the same thing with most of your superstars. In Dallas, Dirk [Nowitzki] was held accountable defensively, and we turned that around. In Seattle (where Casey was a long-time assistant), Gary [Payton] was held accountable by George [Karl] defensively. So if you're star players are held accountable, especially on the defensive end, then nobody has a choice but to buy in. And everybody has, to date."
Andrea Bargnani develops into Raptors' leader under Dwane Casey - Ian Thomsen - SI.com
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