No coasting out West

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

SALT LAKE CITY -- This trip didn't look quite so daunting when the Raptors' schedule first came out. The Utah Jazz? John Stockton and Karl Malone are gone and most prognosticators thought the jilted Jazz would win about as many games as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Los Angeles Clippers? Well, they're still the Clippers, right? In the sporting world, the word "Clippers" is synonymous with the word "chaos."

And the Denver Nuggets? Everyone knew Carmelo Anthony was a great rookie, but few were expecting an immediate turunaround. The thinking was the Nuggets would take a moderate step forward from crappy to slightly less crappy.

But as the Raptors tip off this three-game extravaganza tonight in Salt Lake City, they're painfully aware there are no easy marks.

Keep in mind, trips to the West always are difficult for Eastern clubs in the NBA. This is not only because of the time change, hostile crowds and the general inconveniences of travel, but also because the Western Conference is the dominant conference. Even most of the lesser teams, if they can be called that, are pretty good.

The Jazz (15-13 overall, 11-3 at home), Clippers (11-13 overall, 8-5 at home) and Nuggets (17-11 overall, 11-3 at home) all are dangerous, particularly in the comfy confines of their home arenas. And to be blunt, the jumper-happy Raptors have not exactly been firing on all cylinders lately, either.

"For a guy like me who is defensive-minded, it's tough to watch some of the things we do," Raptors coach Kevin O'Neill said last week. And since the Raptors took three days off this week, there likely won't be a dramatic style change in evidence tonight.

Since Charles Oakley left the Raptors, they have not been particularly tough. There have been some elements of physical toughness, but certainly the Raptors have not exhibited much mental toughness in the past couple of years.

For two decades the Jazz was built on mental toughness. But now that Stockton and Malone are gone, the Jazz has gone through stretches this season that have left no-nonsense coach Jerry Sloan shaking his head.

"Quite frankly, I thought we might cry a time or two," Sloan said after a recent loss. "We like to feel sorry for ourselves and that's how you get in trouble. Someday in life, you have to step up and say, 'Today I'm going to be a man. I'm going to wear my boots a little tighter, put my shoes on a little better, step out there and they'll all know who I am. I'm not going to be intimidated by anyone, anywhere, any time, even if I go home with a little blood on my heel.' "

Despite revealing some sort of low-level foot fetish, Sloan's frustration is understandable. It thus will be interesting to see what transpires tonight, since neither Utah nor Toronto has played in several days and the first game after Christmas usually is more about mental toughness than anything else.

When players and coaches with the Raptors or any other team head out on a trip, they virtually are required to say they're taking it one game at a time, that they always look to win every game they play, and that they don't want to set a goal to go anything but undefeated because that would nurture a defeatist attitude. But those of us who aren't employed by a team don't have to worry about such limitations and can discuss the situation more honestly.

The Raptors are 14-13 as this three-game trip begins. If they lose all three, general manager Glen Grunwald may be pushed into a quasi-panic move to acquire another big man of questionable quality. But if the Raptors win at least one game, that ensures they'll head home with no worse than a .500 record.

A 2-1 or 3-0 trip would be like a late Christmas gift. But given the fact the Jazz, Clippers and Nuggets aren't pushovers, the Raptors know deep down that one out of three ain't bad.


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