Raps 'getting better'

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

The rookies can play.

The defence isn't horrible.

The Atlantic Division is up for grabs.

Boy, the NBA landscape looks so much nicer for the Raptors when they actually win a couple of games. Coming off two road wins over the Atlanta Hawks and New Jersey Nets, the optimistic Raptors returned to the practice floor yesterday to prepare for another road game tonight against the Washington Wizards.

"We felt all along we were getting better," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. "I know I kept saying it and people looked at me like I was crazy, but we were getting better."

Just how much better is open to debate. Perhaps the Raptors will answer that question tonight when they look to win a third consecutive road game, something they have not done since February 2004.

The Raptors will receive a boost tonight with the return of starting guard Mike James, who practised yesterday after missing the 95-82 win in New Jersey on Saturday with back spasms.

"As of now, I feel I'm definitely going to go out there and help my team as much as I possibly can," James said.

The absence of James on Saturday may have been a blessing in disguise. Without James, Mitchell used a crunch-time lineup featuring all three rookies -- Charlie Villanueva, Joey Graham and Jose Calderon. Those three gained a large dose of confidence with their late-game run. Graham, who wants to become a defensive stud but is a work in progress, did a fine job guarding Vince Carter.

"It shows a lot of trust and a lot of responsibility (for the rookies) being out there in the crucial minutes of the game," Graham said.

Defensively, the Raptors held the Nets to an opponent season-low 82 points, well below the previous best of 90. With that effort, the Raptors moved out of last in the NBA's defensive rankings and are now tied for second last.

All this has the Raptors thinking big.

"We're trying to get back in the race for the Atlantic title," star forward Chris Bosh said.

Okay, that's a stretch. But, for the record, the Raptors are five games behind the non-intimidating leaders in the worst division in basketball -- the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics and the Nets, all of whom are two games under .500.

Of course, the three rookies will have a large say in whether this team is brutal, pretty bad, mediocre or decent.

"Charlie and Joey and Jose are forced to learn while playing and forced to grow up fast," swingman Morris Peterson said. "They can't play like rookies, they're going to have to play like veterans in order for us to win. I think they're starting to realize that."


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