EUROPEANS IN THE NBA
|Andrea Bargnani left Torontobehind and is now ready to shine in a New York uniform|
Two European big men might look back on Thursday night and the thrilling NBA clash between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden as a turning point in their career.
The Rockets edged out the Knicks 109-106 after a controversial finale and despite Carmelo Anthony's season-high 45 points but, paradoxically, between New York's Andrea Bargnani and Houston's Omer Asik it will be the former who will remember this game in a positive light.
The Italian center had his best game on the home court of his new team as he finished with 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting and four rebounds.
It came just 24 hours after he posted a double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds to help the Knicks pick up a road win at Atlanta.
Barnagni had come off the bench in the opening game of the season and played only 17 minutes, collecting six point and two rebounds.
When New York's first-choice center Tyson Chandler however sustained a serious leg injury, the Italian was inserted in the starting line-up.
Bargani stepped up to the challenge and has averaged 21.3 points-per-night in the last four games, at a par with his best season in Toronto in 2010/11 (21.4 points on 44.8% from the floor) and a far cry from his 12.7 points-per-game during last season.
"He's been looking real good," his team-mate Raymond Felton said on Thursday.
"We've been taking advantage of him at the center spot right now, and centers can't guard him on the perimeter.
"That's been working for us."
But Bargnani has always been a skilled offensive player with a precise long-range shot that most big men would envy, so the fact that he is emerging as New York's second-leading scorer after Anthony is not the major news.
The 28-year-old big man has come under enormous criticism almost ever since the Raptors selected him with the first overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft and his detractors have always pointed to lack of defensive intensity as his major weakness.
On Thursday night though, Bargnani played such excellent defence on Dwight Howard that he limited the Houston star to 1-of-5 from the field and just seven points.
"He [Howard] is very physical so I just tried to play the best defence I could, that's all you can do against Dwight," said the Roman.
"I thought he [Bargnani] played his butt off," Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said in recognition of his player's effort.
"We tried to protect him early just to kind of prolong the game and we let him play.
"He got a couple of charges on him [Howard], got a block.
"I thought he was solid."
'HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM'
|Unfortunately for Ömer Asik, Superman runs alone, without a side-kick|
By contrast, and despite the fact Howard was struggling in New York, Asik sat on the edge of the Houston bench for the entire game, and saw his streak of 239 consecutive NBA games played, come to an unceremonious end.
Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said on Thursday that he did not use the 27-year-old because he was not feeling well, but the Houston Chronicle reported that prior to the game in New York, Asik had put in a transfer request.
On Wednesday night, the Turkish center had featured for only four minutes as the Rockets lost in overtime loss to the Sixers in Philadelphia.
Only a year ago, Asik seemed to have made a very astute move by joining the Rockets, following two years as a back-up to Joakim Noah at the Chicago Bulls.
His stat lines sky-rocketed to a double-double season average of 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds as he started at the center position for Houston in all 82 Regular Season games and the six games they played in the play-offs.
But then, last summer, Houston decided to bring in Howard and, reportedly, that was when Asik first asked to be traded.
Maybe following Bargnani's example and going for another change of scenery is exactly what the Turkish international needs at this point, although Houston's official stance is that such a move is not in the cards.
McHale has stated that Asik and Howard are not mutually exclusive in the starting lineup.
"He's going to have to get out there and play. Will he start against some bigger teams? Possibly," the Rockets boss said.
In the meantime, all the evidence suggests that the arrival of Howard has been detrimental not only to Asik but also to the progress of Donatas Motiejunas.
The 23-year-old Lithuanian forward/center was making great strides in the second part of last season and then had a promising debut with his senior national team as the Baltic side conquered silver medal at EuroBasket 2013.
But at the start of the new NBA season he has only appeared briefly in two games, despite the fact he can also play at the '4' spot.
Motiejunas did not feature on Thursday in new York either, while Israel's Omri Casspi played for 17 minutes and contributed four points in Houston's win.
Casspi, who joined the Rockets in the off-season, has played in all of their nine games so far and is averaging 8.3 points and 4.1 rebounds-per-game.
Meanwhile Slovenian point guard Beno Udrih did not step on the court on Thursday, as he is still trying to find his place on the Knicks rotation since arriving in New York as a free agent in the summer and has played in just four games so far.