Beasts of the East

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

In these parts, it has to be considered the game of the year to date.

The two hottest teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference -- the New Jersey Nets and the Raptors -- will touch down at the Air Canada Centre today in front of an anticipated near-sellout crowd. All zero people who felt this was destined to be a marquee game can take a bow.

The Nets, with the despised Vince Carter leading the way, are on an NBA-best nine-game winning streak after starting the season with nine wins in 21 games. The Raptors have won five games in a row after going 1-15 out of the starting gate.

"Any time Vince comes back to town, you know he's going to come ready to play," said Raptors swingman Morris Peterson, who figures to spend much of his day guarding Carter. "This shouldn't be a game we don't get up for. This is a game we should be ready to play."

The Raptors are looking to go on their first six-game winning streak since their improbable nine-game run near the end of 2002 without the injured Carter, which sent Toronto to its most recent playoff appearance. A win against the red-hot Nets -- all but one of the Raptors' wins during their current streak have come against teams with losing records -- certainly would open some eyes around the league.

"They've been really rolling lately," Raptors point guard Mike James said.

STICK TO THE PLAN

"We have to just come out and stick to our game plan and play our game. Not really focus on what those guys are doing, but focus on what we're doing."

That will be easier said than done against a Nets team that has three legitimate all-star candidates -- Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson. Kidd had his 69th career triple-double in a 113-106 victory over the Orlando Magic Friday while Carter scored 31 points for his sixth 30-plus outing during the winning streak.

"Talent," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said when asked why the Nets have turned things around. "Do I need to say that again? They've got three guys who can make the all-star team. Maybe I'm not that smart, but I'm smart enough to realize Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd (are) three all-stars. Generally, with three all stars you're going to win some games."

Maybe so, but the Raptors held the Nets to a then opponent-season low 82 points in a 95-82 road victory last month. The Nets have scored 99 or more points in six of their past nine games, but the Raptors defence, while far from great, continues to improve.

"We're starting to trust each other on the court," James said. "I think that's one of the main differences that wasn't there at the beginning of the season. We didn't know each other and if you don't know someone, you don't know if you can trust them or not."

The Raptors (11-22) are just 21/2 games back of the Chicago Bulls for the East's final playoff spot. Those teams meet tomorrow night in Chicago.


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