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Italian star fits in nicely with Raptors

From the moment he became commissioner, David Stern had a vision for a global NBA, a league that would gain a foothold around the world and inspire legions of foreign players to make basketball an international sport.

Sunday afternoon, in this great international city, I saw Stern's vision in full expression. Before a sellout crowd at the Air Canada Centre, a young Toronto Raptors team with four Europeans in key roles gave the best team in the NBA all it could handle before losing in the final second, 97-96. Dallas, getting 38 points from German superstar Dirk Nowitzki, barely escaped with its 17th win in 18 games. The Raptors, who lead a weak Atlantic Division with a losing record, showed why they're slowly seizing the imagination of the community.

For one compelling stretch of the second half, fans were treated to a duel between 7-foot Europeans -- Nowitzki, an established superstar and MVP candidate, and rookie Andrea Bargnani, the versatile 21-year-old Italian who was the top overall pick in last June's draft.

During one sequence in the third quarter, Bargnani swooped around Nowitzki for a dunk. Then he blocked one of Nowitzki's signature fallaways. Late in the game, Nowitzki gave Bargnani a forearm in the chest while being closely guarded at the top of the key -- then got a technical foul when he complained about the foul call.

Nowitzki got the best of it in the end. He's 28, a star in his prime. But Bargnani, who made a slow initial adjustment to the NBA, showed flashes of the audacity and physical talent that made him the top pick overall.

"He's a better player now than I was at 19 or 20," said Nowitzki. "He's a little more athletic than I was at his age. I think he's got a chance to be a really great player in this league."

It's a natural comparison -- European 7-footers with all-around games. But Bargnani didn't want to hear about his duel with Nowitzki, and he wasn't taking any consolation from the narrow loss.

"It's nothing," he said. "We lost. Dirk is a very good player, but that's it. When you lose this way, it doesn't matter. If you play like this, you should win."

If the Raptors keep playing this way, they'll finish with a lot more than the 27 wins they had a year ago. They've undergone a radical transformation under General Manager Bryan Colangelo, who has molded them in the swift, entertaining image of his former team, the Phoenix Suns.

Colangelo traded for point guard T.J. Ford and Slovenian center Rasho Nesterovic. He signed forward Jorge Garbajosa, a veteran of the Spanish pro leagues, and guard Anthony Parker, who spent the last five years in Israel.

Chris Bosh, who is 6-10, and Bargnani give the Raptors twin towers to build around. Bargnani's playing time and production have doubled since the first month of the season. Over his last six games, he is averaging 13.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 31 minutes and shot 50 percent from three-point range.

"I'm spending more minutes on the court," Bargnani said, "so I'm happy about that."

He seems happy off the court, too. Toronto has a large Italian population. Bargnani's mother, Luisella, is living with him. He is hugely popular back in Italy, where basketball is second only to soccer -- albeit a distant second -- and many of Toronto's games are carried live on TV.

Bargnani doesn't speak English well, but is committed to becoming fluent by the end of the season.

"His mother is an English teacher," said Maurizio Gherardini, the Raptors' assistant GM, "so that should put some extra pressure on him."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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