Raptors like what they see

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:50 AM ET

It will be like an old-fashioned holiday special, "Christmas With The Raptors."

Easy on the turkey, Hoffa.

Rafer, you're supposed to pass around the presents, not open them all yourself.

Why has Morris spent so much time near the mistletoe?

Well, at least the Junk Yard Dog is gone, so we don't have to listen to him barking "Jingle Bells."

Truth be told, the Raptors will not be physically together on Christmas Day. However, for the first time since 1998 -- when a lockout vaporized NBA games for three months -- this coming season the Raptors will not have to endure a daunting, multi-game road trip through Christmas and New Year's.

That's just one of the notable aspects of the Raptors' 2005-06 schedule, which was released yesterday and, all things considered, looks pretty decent.

Of course, a bad team can't be saved miraculously by a good schedule, any more than a good team can be ruined completely by a bad schedule.

But somebody within Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd. -- perhaps Raptors general manager Rob Babcock or Raptors coach Sam Mitchell -- paid a little more attention this year when it came to supplying available dates and getting aggressive about what's best for the squad.

MLSEL has been criticized in the past for not worrying nearly enough about the competitive interests of its basketball team, or even its hockey team. Sports schedules were seen as things to be jammed in around lucrative concerts, conventions and ice shows at the Air Canada Centre.

But the Raptors' new sked has some nuggets of optimism:

* The Raptors play five of their first six games at home. They open the season on Wednesday, Nov. 2 in Toronto against the Washington Wizards, and will play host to Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets two nights later.

* While the Raptors will be on the road for a spell just prior to Christmas, they don't have that annual three- or four-game Yuletide junket, a timebomb hidden in red and green wrapping paper, to fret about. Over the past three seasons, the Raptors went a combined 2-9 on those Grinchly voyages.

* The Raptors have no road trips longer than five games. In fact, they have only two of those, and one doesn't really count because it's split up by the all-star weekend in Houston.

* After Feb. 25, the Raptors have only one road game outside the Eastern Conference (at New Orleans on April 7). Mitchell greatly prefers a schedule that sees his club get most of its Western trips out of the way early, before all those Pacific powerhouses find their groove. While Mitchell might have liked to see a few more of those games in November and December as opposed to January and February, overall the schedule definitely is slanted in the direction he wanted.

Looking around the NBA, the season officially tips off with three games on Tuesday, Nov. 1, a day before the Raptors get started.

BIG GAMES

There are two marquee games on Christmas (San Antonio Spurs at Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Lakers at Miami Heat). And the league's marketers came up with a supposed antidote to the mid-season blahs called "rivalry week," which takes place between Feb. 23 and March 1 (the Raptors don't have any rivals, per se, barring an unexpected move by the Memphis Grizzlies back to Vancouver).

Regardless, a new schedule is like a clean slate for all teams.

Eighty-two chances to succeed. Eighty-two chances to fail.

"We can't change the schedule anyway, so there's never any reason to complain," Babcock said yesterday. "But overall, I think this schedule is much better than last year's schedule."

Unlike past seasons, the schedule on its own is not a first strike against the Raptors.

God bless us, every one.


Videos

Photos