Raptors becoming fit as proverbial fiddle

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

There were reports out of the Raptors training camp that coach Sam Mitchell was acting like an ogre, but not in the funny Shrek way.

Players were overwhelmed by how hard the first-year coach worked them, with constant running and conditioning drills, prompting complaints in some quarters that Mitchell was going a little overboard.

The hard work, however, has paid off. In eight regular season games, the Raptors have outscored their opponents in the fourth quarter in every game.

Mitchell credits that with the team's superior conditioning -- something he takes great pride in. As a player in the NBA for 13 years, Mitchell was a fitness nut and believes his players should be the same.

"I just felt like if we were going to be a running basketball team, you have to be in shape," Mitchell said yesterday before the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center. "And conditioning is a big part of it. Most of the time, guys don't do the things they're supposed to do late in the game, because of fatigue.

"Fatigue makes cowards of us all. So if you're less fatigued, the extra step you need to cut the baseline off (late in a game), maybe you have that in your legs to do it."

Mitchell said he was well aware early in camp that the Raptors, particularly those who played in Toronto last season, were not used to running as much as he made them run. Kevin O'Neill, the head man last season, had his troops play a defensive, half-court style that emphasized toughness over quickness and speed.

And while the Raptors (4-3) are off to a decent start, they have played beyond most expectations and a lot of that has to do with their prowess late in games, although they lost recent games in Seattle and Portland on the last possession.

"In the seven games we've played, we've only been out of one game. We could very well be 6-1 instead of 4-3," Mitchell said. "That's all you can ask for in this league, to give yourself as many chances as you can to win.

Mitchell has sat two of his veteran stars, Vince Carter and Jalen Rose, for extended periods late in some games but denied yesterday that it had anything to do with them lagging behind in the fitness department, although Carter did come to camp heavier than usual.

By and large, the coach said his team has adapted to the up-tempo running game and he believes that the Raptors are the fittest squad in the entire NBA.

"The satisfaction I had at camp was, the guys never complained (about the running)," he said. "I didn't have one guy complaining."

At least not out loud.


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