By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Oct 30 2008 10:21AM
The two teams finished one game apart in the standings last season, and both were bounced in the First Round of the Playoffs. While the Sixers had overachieved, the Raptors had underachieved. But neither sat tight this summer.
The Raptors made a trade on draft day to acquire Jermaine O'Neal. The Sixers opened free agency by signing Elton Brand. Following in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett, two more former All-Star big men came to the Atlantic Division, both looking to challenge Garnett's Celtics and earn a spot at the top of the Eastern Conference.
If you ask NBA general managers, they probably favor the Sixers in that quest. When asked what team made the best moves this season, more than half of the GMs who responded said Philadelphia. None named Toronto. While Brand received two thirds of the votes for the acquisition that will make the biggest impact, O'Neal received just one.
But neither Brand nor O'Neal played All-Star-caliber basketball on this night. Brand had a pedestrian double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 13 boards while shooting just 5-of-14 from the field. O'Neal finished with 17 points and eight boards, hitting seven of his 15 shots.
The difference in the game was the other All-Star on the floor.
Chris Bosh scored 27 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out four assists to lead the Raptors to a 95-84 road win. Bosh rode the momentum of his terrific performance at the Olympics into the season and showed that, while the other stars are still getting used to their new threads, he's quite comfortable in Raptors red ... even though the red was now black.
This wasn't the prettiest of games, but that was to be expected with both teams still adjusting to major changes in their lineup.
O'Neal was not sharp to start, missing his first four shots, leading to some early frustration. On the other end, Brand hit his first three and, with the Sixers dominating the boards, they were in control for much of the first quarter.
But then O'Neal seemed to get on track by making an impact on the defensive end. With 5:13 to go in the first, he stepped in front of Thaddeus Young on a drive to the basket, drawing a charge. A minute later, he got his first basket on a high-low feed from Bosh and scored again on the next possession on a screen-and-roll with Anthony Parker. A heckler who had been jawing at O'Neal after his early struggles (this is Philly, after all) got a staredown after a dunk.
Bosh hadn't exactly started well either, turning the ball over once and getting rejected by Samuel Dalembert twice early on. But he took over in the second quarter, putting up 12 points, six rebounds and two assists in the period as the Raptors took a six-point lead into the break. It was a lead they would never give up.
"I just got with the rhythm of the game," Bosh said afterward.
The Sixers are in rhythm when they're forcing turnovers, but there's no better team in the NBA than the Raptors when it comes to taking care of the ball. They turned it over just 10 times, and with Bosh and O'Neal drawing double-teams down low, their shooters were open often. They hit 10 of their 16 attempts from downtown.
The opposition has to make a choice because defenses often have to send a second defender toward Bosh or O'Neal when they get the ball down low.
"It starts with being doubled," Bosh said. "And this is the first time in a long time that I've seen somebody else [on my team] get doubled in the post."
On the other end, Brand was doubled as well, but his teammates weren't able to help. The Sixers shot just 5-of-20 from downtown.
"It was definitely crowded in the post," Brand said, "but that's what teams are going to do. We do it to them. They have shooters to spread it. Our shooters can spread it, but we just didn't knock down shots."
Not only do their shooters help O'Neal and Bosh, but the two bigs help each other. Tonight, Bosh did the heavy lifting. And there's no doubt that O'Neal likes having another star big man playing next to him.
"It's incredible," he said. "When we get tired, we can just go to the other side and let the other one work. And we can try to get the rebound and do some other things. It takes a lot to try to score every time and defend, and having Chris Bosh, as well as the other guys that we have, it's such a blessing to be in this situation."
You can tell that he's a little giddy about being on a winning team again, and coming to a winner makes the transition easier. After his team's shootaround Wednesday morning, O'Neal was asked to rate how comfortable he was with his new team on a scale of 1 to 10.
"I would say 9.7," he said. "I think we have a lot of guys that have a really high basketball IQ, and it's easy to fit in when you can just talk through things and understand each other."
O'Neal noted that he watched the Celtics receive their rings on TV the night before and realized that for the first time in a few years, he's got a chance of earning one for himself.
"There's something about that," he said, "to come into the season and really know that you've got a real shot if the stars align the right way, that you have a real shot of accomplishing that. And that's been quite a change of speed for me."
In addition to feeling excited about his chance to win games this season, O'Neal wasn't understating the significance of the first one, especially considering the team in the other locker room.
"You want to see where you're at and gauge where you're at early," O'Neal said. "Obviously, neither team's season is going to be made or broken the first game, but I think it's also a tone setter, just for the psyche, to see who can get this win and show which team is better."
The Raptors did just that.
For the Sixers and Brand, success on the floor will have to wait for at least one more night.
"We knew it would take a few games to really get it," he said.
While the additions of Brand and O'Neal might both eventually be positives for their teams, the difference between the Sixers and Raptors may be what they had on their roster before the moves were made.
Brand doesn't have a player like Chris Bosh to help him out. The Raptors are up one All-Star and now, one game.
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