Still in the hunt?

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell almost gagged yesterday following a morning practice.

Not because he was shown the price list for hot dogs and beer at the Air Canada Centre, although that's enough to make any non-millionaire keel over.

Without actually using the word, Mitchell was asked about the chances of his club making a playoff run this season.

Despite still being 12 games below .500, the 10-22 Raptors are only 31/2 games (heading into last night's games) behind the Boston Celtics for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, that's how mediocre the East is this season. The Raptors win four straight and suddenly find themselves in the playoff hunt.

Mitchell, however, said it is neither the time nor the place to start thinking about the post-season, although Raptors fans, denied a chance to root for the home team during the playoffs over the last three years, may disagree.

"Don't even go there," Mitchell said. "It's flattering that people are actually thinking about that, but that's so far away for us. We were in such a hole (early in the season), we're just trying to take it one game at a time."

That may be a cliche, but the last thing the second-year head coach wants is for his players to deviate from their current thought-process -- working on the little things he has been preaching since the beginning of the season. Stepping away from that and concentrating on a playoff run, Mitchell believes, would only be counter-productive.

But are the Raptors serious playoff contenders?

Well, there's no doubt they are one of the hottest teams in the NBA (who would ever thought that phrase would be associated with the Raptors this season?) and the East is weak yet again.

But the Raptors still rely heavily on their troika of rookies, and while Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham are playing well right now, first-year players tend to disappear fat times during the long and gruelling NBA season.

Case in point -- Villanueva.

The New York native scored 24 for the Raps in the club's 121-97 win over visiting Orlando on Wednesday night at the ACC. But the night before in Atlanta, he only managed two in 22 minutes, prompting Mitchell to sit him down for most of the second half until Matt Bonner fouled out.

Mitchell said it will take time to for the rookies to develop consistency.

Not to say Mitchell isn't pushing for a big game every night from Villanueva, Graham and point guard Jose Calderon, when he's healthy.

"That's why I'm on them so hard, and that's why I'm going to stay on them," he said.

Three ex-Raps -- Tracy McGrady, Lonny Baxter and Rafer Alston -- return to the scene of the crime as Toronto plays host to the Houston Rockets tonight.


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