A team on the defensive

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

There's no way around it. The Raptors could be facing a long, ugly season. They lack star power, they lack depth, they lack experience and they lack the swagger of a contender.

In an Eastern Conference that will field many improved teams, you scan the Toronto roster and there is little to indicate that the Raptors can match even last season's meagre output of 33 wins.

There is, however, one area where the Raptors have potential to level the playing field and compete night in and night out: By playing superior defence.

You don't have to be an all-star to play strong defence. Defence is about hard work and discipline. It's about selflessness and sacrifice.

Coach Sam Mitchell has been beating his head against a brick wall trying to deliver that message ever since he arrived here last year. He wants his team to be a defence-first outfit but it fell on deaf ears.

There are signs, however, that some people on the roster may be listening this time around. Morris Peterson, who became a defensive stalwart last year, worked both ends of the floor equally hard last night, finishing with 21 points in 31 minutes to lead the Raps over the Celtics 93-83.

"We're gonna make some shots, we're gonna miss some shots but if you get defensive stops and you play hard, you're always gonna give yourself a chance to win," Peterson said.

Defence was a key consideration when the Raps selected Joey Graham 16th overall in the June draft. He's a big, strong kid willing to go toe-to-toe with some of the NBA's big bodies, as he showed last night against Boston's Paul Pierce. Graham was able to turn that defensive energy into a 20-point night.

"My offence comes to me through my defence," Graham said. "When you go out and play great defence, it gives you a lot of confidence to step up and make some shots."

Chris Bosh, now in his third year, already has a good defensive foundation to build upon. The Mike James-for-Rafer Alston deal was largely based upon defensive considerations. And if Alvin Williams is healthy enough to make a contribution, he immediately becomes perhaps the team's best defender.

"It isn't about the individuals," Mitchell said. "We don't have one guy dominating the ball. Everybody's looking to pass. The individuals will emerge out of the team and we're not gonna worry now about who that is. We're just trying to get our team better.

"We just want to keep on the message which is you've got to play defence with your feet and you've got to help and support your teammates."

Defence may not be sexy or flashy and it probably won't put a lot of bums in those many empty seats at the ACC, but the home folks are more likely to warm up to a losing team if the team at least loses with its defensive dignity intact. That kind of defensive dignity can only be maintained by hustle and determination. And if the hustle and determination are there often enough, some of those anticipated losses will turn into victories.

"I'm very excited about our young guys," Peterson said. "Joey and Charlie (Villanueva) both went to great schools with great programs. They come in here every day and work hard, don't say a word. Jose (Calderon), too. Those three guys are going to be very important pieces to our success this year.

"People want to see their team play hard. They want to see us win, too."

Last night, the fans saw their team win for the second time in a row, a fact that many might not have believed possible. Okay, it's still pre-season, nearly two weeks until the lights come on for real.

"When you talk about contributing, you're talking about from Nov. 2 onward," Jalen Rose said. "We're not talking about retiring numbers just yet."

Maybe not. But defence never goes out of style and this team has a chance to keep themselves in a lot of games by drinking the Kool-Aid that their coach is serving.


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