Raps ready for the road

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:34 AM ET

With the regular season set to start, the Raptors are working on polishing their defence so opposition teams don't lay a beating like Father Time did on coach Sam Mitchell's back yesterday.

Mitchell wrenched his back taking part in a scrimmage after a 21/2-hour practice with the team coming off after a day off Saturday and its first and only pre-season loss in Chicago against the Bulls Friday night.

Not that Mitchell has much time for rest and rehab. The Raptors open the season Wednesday in New Jersey against the Nets, and will continue to ramp things up with longish practices today and tomorrow.

Then the schedule becomes more gruelling. Nineteen of their first 31 games are away from the Air Canada Centre, including a five-game trip out west in mid-November with stops in California, Colorado and Utah, and another west coast trip in December. Makes one think about how last season's early schedule, also weighted down with road games, played a part in a 1-15 start.

Of course no one is willing to reference last season now. As coaches and players were saying yesterday, every team has to go through tough schedules.

NO BREAKS

"Last time I looked, (NBA commissioner) David Stern wasn't going to change the schedule for anybody," Mitchell said.

That's true. But as all teams, and especially those in the porous Atlantic Division, are saying, it's vital to get out of the gate quickly. When fatigue sets in as that road trip starts to drag on, that leads to more reliance on team defence.

"The thing about those road trips, each game gets harder and harder," Morris Peterson said. "You're playing against teams that are at home. You've been on the road for six, seven, eight days. Mentally you have to tell yourself you're not tired, but physically you may not be able to do the things you want. That's when you have to dig down mentally, make sure you're in the right spots on defence, make sure you're communicating on defence."

Defence was the theme running through Mitchell's practice yesterday.

"We can do a lot better. Statistically it's not great," T.J. Ford said of the team's defence.

Defence is attitude, offence is skills, someone once said, and Ford buys into that.

"I think anybody can play defence," he said. "It's all mental. It's a new team, so we need to get our defensive structure and different schemes down better than we have. You have to have all five guys involved. One guy messes up and it messes up the whole thing. It's everybody being in the right place at the right time."

The Raps did plenty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time last season defensively, ranking at or near the bottom in categories like field-goal defence and shot-block rates. This was a team that was ranked fourth in scoring, yet it still won only 27 games.

Bosh said they have better schemes this year, and guys are buying into that system a little more. Last season, he said, players relied too much on help defence, and too many weren't doing the heavy lifting themselves.

Then again, as Bosh added, the cast is now dramatically different. Rasho Nesterovic brings more inside size and presence in the low post. Peterson has always been one of the team's stronger defenders. Bosh said he prides himself on his defensive game. "Anthony Parker is a good help side defender, and T.J. (Ford), with his quickness, can keep a lot of guys in front of him," Bosh said.

Time will tell though whether the new cast spins the same old story.


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