New-found respect

Chris Bosh stands around with a mouth guard during a time out against the Boston Celtics in the 2nd...

Chris Bosh stands around with a mouth guard during a time out against the Boston Celtics in the 2nd half at the ACC on October 11, 2006. (Ernest Doroszuk, Toronto Sun)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

Head coach Sam Mitchell is confident the Raptors will not go from pre-season studs to regular-season duds.

And it seems he's not alone.

The Raptors, now 5-0 in pre-season action, finished with the fourth-worst record in the NBA last season (27-55) and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. But the hiring of Bryan Colangelo as general manger and some of the moves he made in the off-season has garnered the team new-found respect.

Sports Illustrated, for one, has picked the Raptors to finish second in the Atlantic Division this season, behind Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets, but ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics.

Toronto finished fourth in the division last season, below every team except New York.

And while the players appreciate the sentiment, nobody on the team is particularly pleased with SI's prediction.

"(Second-place) sounds feasible, but we want to win it," forward Chris Bosh said. "We're competing to win the Atlantic Division (and lock up a playoff spot). If we go in with second on our minds, there's no telling what will happen.

"We're trying to be first in everything, pretty much," he said.

Teammate Morris Peterson said the players can't get fooled by the fact that they haven't lost in the pre-season.

"It's nice to get off to a good start in the pre-season, but you have to look at the big picture," he said. "We don't want to get too happy about this, but we are moving in the right direction."

If anyone will keep the high-flying Raptors grounded, it's Mitchell, who is in the final year of his contract and will get an extension only if the team makes significant strides this year.

"We understand that it's pre-season and when the regular season starts it's a whole different ball game," Mitchell said. "But we're trying to continue to build. We haven't won for the two years I've been here. So what we're trying to establish is a culture of winning.

"We haven't proven anything, we haven't done anything," the coach added. "Yeah, we feel good about ourselves. But we want to win. We know we have a lot to prove and it's going to take every game, just playing hard and playing together and try to win as many basketball games as we can and that's our mentality right now."

Another authoritative source for NBA insight, ESPN.com, also predicted that the Raptors will be an improved squad this season. In fact, writer Bill Evans said in the website's preview that it is not inconceivable that the Raptors make the playoffs.

Mitchell is hoping for that also and applauds the moves his new GM made in the off-season, such as signing Bosh to an extension and trading for lightning-quick point guard T.J. Ford. But the third-year head coach also believes that he has improved and that will help the club's fortunes.

"The thing about me this year is that I have two years under my belt," he said. "I understand the mistakes I've made, and I'm trying to correct those things and keep getting better.

"I want to keep evolving as a coach.

"I've got a long way to go, I don't know all the answers, but my staff has been great," Mitchell added.

"(And) I like the rhythm that we have as a group, how we work, how our guys our stepping up."


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