Raptors still treading in the Atlantic

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

Raptors coach Sam Mitchell is loathe to read newspaper articles about his struggling team, but he is encouraging his players to stick their noses in whatever rag they can find. It's all there in black and white: Despite the fact the Raptors (7-16) have lost seven games in a row heading into tonight's affair at the Air Canada Centre against the impressive Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto is a club still very much in the hunt for a playoff spot.

The Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division is head and shoulders the weakest in the NBA and even though the Raps sit dead-last, they're still only 4 1/2 games back of the leading New York Knicks, the only squad in the Atlantic with a .500 record (heading into last night's action). So, while all may appear lost for the sad-sack Raps, they certainly are not.

"Somebody's going to come out of our division that doesn't have a great record (and make the playoffs), why can't it be us?" forward Donyell Marshall was asking after practice yesterday.

"We're still not that far out, we're still right there in the thick of things, and it's early in the year. The most gruelling part of our schedule we just passed, obviously we have one more tough one (tonight) and then things calm down a little bit, and we can make our run. We have to stick together and turn this around."

Not to belabour this point, but the Raptors have been hit with a very difficult start to the schedule, with 19 of 31 on the road during the first two months. There's a feeling on the club that after the one final very tough road swing, Dec. 26-29 against the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, there is a real chance to put some wins on the board. And that's regardless of whether general manager Rob Babcock is able to trade injured star Vince Carter, who is out with a strained left Achilles tendon.

"You can feel sorry for yourself, or you can look at where you are and the things that are causing you to lose games and you can look at the division you're in and say, 'Hey, we still have a chance,' " Mitchell said. "All we have to do is string together some wins and come out and play a little bit tougher. Not harder, but tougher."

As well as cut down on what Mitchell terms "little mistakes" such as giving up offensive rebounds and loose balls and lousy free-throw shooting.

"It's little things that are beating us," he said. "It's not major things. If each guy can just cut down on one mistake, that gives us the extra seven-eight possessions. If we shoot what we normally shoot, we win the game."


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