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A fired-up Bosh carrying Raptors

You may not have noticed, but Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh has been playing like a man possessed lately.

Take Sunday's game against Indiana. The 6-foot-10 forward was bent down among his teammates barking encouragement and pumping his fist over and over during the pregame huddle. He brought a similar fire to the game's first possession, which ended with Bosh's waging and winning a battle with all five Pacers packed in the paint as he finally got his third putback attempt to go through the hoop.

That set the tone for Bosh's man-among-boys performance, notable for its versatility. During one whirlwind 95-second span midway through the first quarter, he drew a charge, blocked two shots, sank a layup and grabbed two rebounds. He finished the night with 26 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and a plus-25 in 37 minutes of Toronto's 117-102 victory (meaning the Raptors were a minus-10 in the 11 minutes Bosh sat). The next day, he was named the NBA's Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

Bosh is no stranger to accolades, of course. Just 25, he was recently chosen to play in his fifth All-Star Game. And when people talk about this offseason's bumper crop of free-agent stars, Bosh is always on the short list of the most desirable talent.

But he doesn't top that list, or most any other list. Despite all his skills and eye-opening statistics, there is still something vice presidential about Bosh's fame -- he remains at most just a demi-superstar.

Part of that is the misfortune of sharing a draft class with megawatt celebrities such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, and now looming free agency with James and Wade. Part of it is playing out of the spotlight in Toronto, where he's lacked sufficient help inside. Without that frontcourt depth, he has been mostly absent from the league's biggest stage: Toronto has played a grand total of 11 playoff games and failed to reach the second round in his six full seasons there.

Part of it, too, may be that Bosh is known for being quiet and having a low-key personality.

"I wouldn't say CB is underrated, but he is less about the hype than some superstars are," Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo said in an e-mail. "He carries himself differently and it just seems to be his nature."

Sam Mitchell, one of Bosh's former coaches, cut to the chase: "You can take him home to momma. He'll never be in the news for something that's happened off the court, and that's a good thing."

Scratch a little beneath that placid, non-controversial surface, however, and you encounter some of the fiery pride that has already been more evident in Bosh's game this season, as he displayed against the Pacers.

"I don't think I am considered one of best forwards in the league, and I want to be considered the best," he said. Later, asked to respond to the most frequent criticism of his game -- that he isn't a lockdown defender -- he said, "Who is a lockdown defender and at the same time the No. 1 [offensive] option on their team? Just Jordan, and Kobe maybe. I feel I am a good defensive player; if people want to challenge that, I will gladly prove it every night. If a guy scores on me at will, I will gladly take the blame. But they have to do it first."

In fact, Bosh has defended the paint, if not the perimeter on pick-and-rolls, more effectively this season, buttressed by a rigorous training regimen that added bulk and strength without sacrificing quickness. Last year, he was listed at 228 pounds. "I'm about 240, 245 now," he said.

That's not the only upgrade. Bosh is rebounding (11.4) and scoring (24.0) at career highs, racking up the points in an efficient manner. A threat from anywhere on the court, he is nailing a career-best 52.1 percent from the field and 78.8 percent from the foul line (he's also fifth in the league in free-throw attempts).

"I'm confident in my jump shot, but I am more aggressive now," he said. "I want to get to the basket and impose my will on people more this year."

That's been a crucial counterbalance to a roster that is otherwise laden with perimeter shooters, including Bosh's fellow frontcourt starters, Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu. And it is paying off in the one thing that is certain to elevate Bosh's reputation -- wins.

After a slow start, the Raptors' 19-9 record since early December has them tied with Memphis among the NBA's hottest teams, behind only Cleveland at 23-5. And with their next four games against sub-.500 opponents -- including three of them at home, where the Raptors have won 11 of 12 -- their lock on the fifth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference will likely become more secure.

But with the worst defensive efficiency rating in the NBA and a quartet of superior teams ahead of it in the East, Toronto will be hard-pressed to survive a first-round playoff series. Which raises a question a lot of GMs will be asking themselves this spring: Can a franchise win a ring with Bosh as its alpha star, or does he belong in the Scottie Pippen/Pau Gasol mold of being a top-notch beta star?

The answer is probably the latter -- which has more to do with the greater value of wing players over paint players in the modern NBA than it does with Bosh's ceiling as a player. With Kevin Garnett's declining health and Tim Duncan's move to center, Bosh is arguably the game's best power forward (or will soon overtake the older Dirk Nowitzki for that distinction). He is also good enough to be a dominant factor on offense.

"I always put the ball in Chris' hands, not just because he shoots so well but because he opens up the floor for everyone else," Mitchell said.

Still, the clearest path toward a championship for Bosh would seem to be using Gasol's team change (which came via trade, not his own choosing) as a prototype -- pair up with a superstar wing player who complements your inside game and compels you to work harder on defense. (On the other hand, Bosh is more versatile than Gasol, and would also flourish playing beside a legitimate big man such as Brook Lopez or Joakim Noah.)

Toronto, of course, has faith in Bosh. Colangelo calls him "the cornerstone of the franchise, which is why our approach or intention has been, rightly or wrongly, to keep him here long term either through the signing of an extension or a new free-agent contract come July 2010." The Raptors' success over the last two months will only strengthen that resolve.

Bosh himself has avoided the kind of coy, cat-and-mouse comments LeBron has issued regarding his future plans.

"People ask me what I'm going to do and then they ask me if it is a distraction," he said wryly. "If you stop asking me, it won't be a distraction. If I worried about it every day, it would be a huge distraction. But I don't try to predict the future and right now I just let it go."

For a top-10 scorer and rebounder and perennial All-Star who may still be a year or two away from his prime, the future is lucrative and, be it alpha or beta, very bright.

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