Raptors ready to soar

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

The race for the Atlantic Division championship will not be mistaken for the Indianapolis 500. And that's just fine for the 10-18 Raptors, who prefer a dash with fellow snails.

Because they play in the worst division in the NBA, the last-place Raptors departed for a two-day Christmas break yesterday dreaming of a banner-raising ceremony at season's end.

Never mind the criticized Vince Carter trade, Jalen Rose's unhappiness at being benched or all the other garbage that has found its way into the dressing room this season. The Raptors, a respectable 2-2 since trading Carter to the New Jersey Nets last Friday, actually feel they can make a run for the division title.

"Our record doesn't seem like it, but in our division, we're still there," said Donyell Marshall, the most consistent Raptor recently. "There's not going to be somebody coming out of our division with a great record. We've got 10 wins and the first place team only has (13)."

That team is the 13-13 New York Knicks, who are not exactly reminding people of the Chicago Bulls of the early 1990s. Heck, the Raptors crushed the Knicks 114-91 earlier this season. The five teams in the Atlantic are separated by just four games.

EASIER SCHEDULE

After a three-game western swing, beginning on Boxing Day in Phoenix, the schedule finally becomes a little easier for the Raptors. They play 10 of 14 games at home in January.

The Raptors offence hasn't really suffered in the wake of the Carter deal. Toronto has scored 110, 102 and 98 points in its past three games.

"Jalen has been a proven scorer in this league, I've scored 30, Lamond (Murray) has scored 30, Eric Williams has scored 30 and Mo Pete has scored 30. We've got people in here who can score," Marshall said. "I don't think that's going to be a problem. We've still been averaging 95-100 points without (Carter)."

Spreading the wealth will become a focus for the Raptors.

It's going to be a different guy, two or three guys every night," coach Sam Mitchell said. "We're not going to rely on getting the ball to one guy. We don't have Tracy McGrady. We've got to rely on all our guys and whoever has got it going that night, hopefully we've got the team that will get that person the ball."

With newcomer Eric Williams making his first start Wednesday, the Raptors, for a change, didn't stumble in the opening quarter. They led 28-19 after the first quarter, tying their season-high for largest lead after 12 minutes, en route to a 98-86 win over the Utah Jazz.

"I just felt we needed what Eric brings to the table -- defence, rebounding and I felt we needed a little push," Mitchell said.


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