Raps respect Maccabi

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

Sam Mitchell is not about to develop an ulcer worrying about the pre-season, but a loss today against Maccabi Tel Aviv would give the Raptors coach, at the very least, a bad case of heartburn.

Nobody in the NBA wants to lose against a team that plays in Europe, particularly the Raptors, a squad that is 0-2 in the pre-season. A victory by Toronto this afternoon at the Air Canada Centre would do wonders for morale. A loss probably would hurt much more than anyone in the organization would care to admit. The official word yesterday out of practice, however, is that Maccabi is just another game, no more or no less important.

"A loss is a loss. You don't try to lose against anyone," said forward Matt Bonner, who understands how good the Tel Aviv squad is, having spent a season playing in Europe. "I respect what level they play at. You have to come to play if you want to win."

Indeed, Maccabi Tel Aviv has won five European Cup titles, including championships in 2004 and 2005. The franchise also has won the National Cup 35 times, and has dressed a number of former NBAers, including one-time Raptors forward Maceo Baston, who played in Toronto during the 2002-03 season. Baston will suit up this afternoon.

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Mitchell has said repeatedly that he will not give his veteran players major minutes early in the pre-season just to win a game. The head coach wants to see what the rookies and invitees can do.

The Raptors have dropped two close games early in the pre-season to the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics. And while his club's continued lack of success on the boards has proved to be frustrating to Mitchell, he is happy on a number of fronts, especially the play of rookie forward Charlie Villanueva, who scored 17 points with six rebounds in a 107-100 loss to Boston on Friday night. The 2005 first round pick also picked up 15 points and four blocked shots in a 102-101 OT defeat at the hands of Utah.

Point guard Mike James, who was acquired by Toronto in exchange for Rafer Alston during training camp, put a smile on his new coach's face in Boston by picking up 20 points and four assists.

The major question mark on this team now is the centre position. Neither veteran Loren Woods, who managed two points and four rebounds in 17 minutes on Friday, nor sophomore Rafael Araujo, who had all of one rebound in 17 minutes against Boston, have stepped up in any way. Again, Mitchell is not about to push the panic button.

"I'm not overly concerned about it now, because we've only played two pre-season games, and from what I've seen in practice those guys are getting better," Mitchell said.


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