Tough road still ahead

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:32 AM ET

Any win early in the season is important, but last night's 95-88 victory over the Houston Rockets was crucial for the Raptors.

That's because they've been hammered with perhaps their worst schedule ever to start a season.

After contesting the opening three games at home -- including tomorrow night against defending NBA champions Detroit, followed by the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday -- Toronto embarks on a gruelling West Coast road trip, which will see them play six games in nine days against very difficult competition. The trip begins with Sacramento next Tuesday, followed by Utah on Wednesday. Toronto also plays in Seattle (Nov. 12), Portland (Nov. 13), Los Angeles (Nov. 16), against the Clippers, and finally, Denver on Nov. 17.

The next very challenging trip after that begins on Nov.30 in Miami, against Shaquille O'Neal and the Heat, followed by a game the next night in Orlando, a one day break, then back-to-back contests in Boston and Cleveland, followed by games the day after in New Jersey and then Detroit.

It's reasonable to suggest that the improving Raps could find themselves well below .500 by the New Year.

The only two major West Coast swings this season come in the first two months of the schedule for Toronto. On Christmas Day, the Raps embark on a three-game swing, with stops in Phoenix (Dec.26), L.A., to face the Lakers (Dec.28) and Golden State (Dec.29). But head coach Sam Mitchell is taking it all in stride.

"We didn't curse the gods for the schedule that we have," he said. "The way we look at it, early in the season a lot of teams are trying to find themselves and trying to jell. We felt like if we could have a competitive enough training camp to where we could come out before some of these teams jell and click, we could get some wins."

If Toronto can survive the gruelling first two months with a record close to .500, they will be in good shape to make a move in the East.


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