Mediocrity doesn't cut it

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:49 AM ET

When you win 16 games out of 39, you do not speak about the playoffs unless you are talking about the NFL and what you're planning to watch over the weekend.

You conspire to get a little worse so you can get a lottery pick.

You jettison contracts, expand rebuilding plans from three to five years and give plenty of playing time to the kids.

You do not, or should not, spend your mornings contemplating your giddy good fortune, as the Raptors, members in good standings of the NBA's Eastern Conference are tempted to do these days.

The Raptors still are playing meaningful games and figure to be for quite a while.

"In the wacky East," explained Raptors' point guard Rafer Alston, using the same tone non-basketball people use when talking about the effects of laughing gas.

"Go to espn.com and find the guy who wrote the East was the worst division in all sports," Donyell Marshall advised. "It's there."

It's enough to make coach Sam Mitchell apoplectic and there are few people as genuinely entertaining as Sam Mitchell when he feels playfully aggrieved.

"Five hundred," the Raptors coach said yesterday. "We are a below .500 team. Let's just get to average before we get excited about anything."

Now, Mitchell is not hard to read. If you are giddy over a team that has lost seven more games than it has won, you're setting the bar awfully low.

That's why talk of making the playoffs with a losing record leaves him tasting bile.

"I want our players aiming for something better," Mitchell said.

Still, there's a reason we run the standings every morning.

Thirty-nine games in, the Raptors stood two games out of a share of first place in the Atlantic Division. Going into play last night, six of the Eastern Conference's 15 teams teams have between 16 and 18 wins. Included in that pack are the three teams above Toronto in the Atlantic, the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers. Atlanta and Charlotte still haven't hit double figures in victories. That, friends, is a whole lot of bad.

In a funny, improbable way, the Raptors, still seven games under .500, are really in the middle of the pack.

It would have gladdened Mitchell's soul had he heard Chris Bosh talking about the standings yesterday.

In countenance and approach, Bosh is as excitable as a mountain range.

"We're aware of the standings but we don't want to think too much about them," Bosh said. "As long as we keep winning games, we have a chance of doing something down the stretch. That's what I want to concentrate on. Wins, winning games. I keep coming back to that."

It's true. The Raptors can make the playoffs. All they have to do is win.

That seems infinitely more possible now than it did 48 hours ago.

A convincing win in Minnesota over the Timberwolves stacked atop six wins in eight tries since the calendar turned has left the Raptors talking post-season and yes, even a division title.

The Minnesota victory might have been their first road victory in 11 tries, but it was a road win. You win at home, you win on the road, you might be all right.

TEAM BASKETBALL

More important than the standings is the committed, team basketball, the Raptors are turning in more nights than not.

"Unselfishness," said Bosh, when asked to describe what has turned things for the Raptors. "Playing hard for each other, having each other's back on defence and offence. Those things matter."

So does a dependable bench, plenty of available offence from Jalen Rose, the rebirth of Morris Peterson's game, Alston's game-by-game maturation into a playmaking point guard and the geyser of development from Bosh.

Maybe the best news yet is the distrust of the coach and the team's emerging star of the standings.

Mitchell and Bosh are righter than a slice of lime in soda. Never mind the neighbours. Build a better house.


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