Raptors on empty

Sam Mitchell in a file photo. (SUN/Alex Urosevic)

Sam Mitchell in a file photo. (SUN/Alex Urosevic)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

These may be the dog days of the NBA, but that didn't stop Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell yesterday from working his club to the bone.

For three hours, Mitchell ran his players hard.

And why not?

The coach gave his players a rare day off Thursday -- a mental health day he called it -- and the club responded with a dismal 108-97 loss to the injury-depleted Denver Nuggets on Friday.

But it doesn't appear there's a lot he can do to end the team's second-worst slide of the season. Toronto began the 2005-06 campaign with a face plant, going 1-15, but had everyone dreaming of better days ahead by putting together a respectable 7-8 mark in January and starting the month of February off at 5-2.

But with the loss to Denver, the Raptors fell to 1-9 in their past 10 and the players, at least the starters, appear to be hitting the wall. Which isn't good news, considering that the Toronto bench, with the exception of Matt Bonner, has given Mitchell very little of late.

In the past 10, starting forward/guard Morris Peterson has averaged 45.3 minutes per game, fourth most in the NBA. Power forward Chris Bosh has averaged 42.7 minutes (12th in the NBA) and guard Mike James 39.4 (24th).

Along with forward Charlie Villanueva, third among rookies in average minutes (35.3), those four have had to carry the team, and the fatigue factor was evident in Friday's game when the club imploded late in the third and in the fourth quarter against Denver.

"I'm not saying what you're saying is not valid, but from my standpoint, and standpoint of the players, there are no excuses," Mitchell said, when asked about his starters hitting the wall. "You still have find a way to get it done. Like a marathon runner ... they find a way cross that finish line after 26 miles."

But there's not a lot Mitchell can do.

Rookies Joey Graham and Jose Calderon have definitely hit the rookie wall, Antonio Davis still has a sore back, and Mitchell is reluctant to give anyone else many minutes.

And even though the 21-41 Raptors almost certainly are not going to make the playoffs (they sit 10 games out of the last playoff spot in the East heading into yesterday's games), Mitchell wants his club to end the season on a winning note.

"Trust me, if I cut their minutes, they're going to be knocking on my door," he said.

Peterson and Bosh both reluctantly admitted yesterday that the fatigue factor is coming into play, but neither are complaining.

"I'll take the work load and take the minutes and do the best I can," said Peterson, who is given the tough assignment night after night of guarding the other team's star player.

"This is the time of year when guy's bodies start breaking down. But I try to get extra lifting in, get a cold whirlpool to help keep me loose and stuff like that."


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