Time for talk is over

Raptors final practice before the start of the season. At ACC Coach Sam Mitchell talks to T. J....

Raptors final practice before the start of the season. At ACC Coach Sam Mitchell talks to T. J. Ford during practice. (SUN/Michael Peake)

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:54 PM ET

Despite a new roster, a name general manager and an NBA pre-season championship, the Raptors find themselves in a similar spot to where they were at this time last year.

While cautious optimism has surfaced locally heading into the season opener tonight against the Nets in New Jersey, the Raptors once again are much closer to the basement than the penthouse in most NBA previews.

In the opening power rankings of the season, a popular tool for the big North American media outlets, ESPN has the Bryan Colangelo-led Raptors 21st in the 30-team league, USA Today ranks Toronto 23rd and CNNSI lists the Raptors a lowly 28th, ahead of only the Atlanta Hawks and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Perhaps with the knowledge of these polls in mind, the Raptors came out swinging yesterday. The season starts tonight with a road game against the favourites in the Atlantic Division -- the New Jersey Nets.

"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people in this league," Raptors point guard T.J. Ford said. "(Tonight) is the first stepping stone. Right out of the gate, we can surprise a lot of people. No one expects us to do a whole lot."

If the Raptors plan to contend for a playoff spot in the first year of Colangelo's rebuilding project, they can't fall too far behind the 8-ball in the first two months of the season when they play 19 of 31 games away from the Air Canada Centre.

DISMAL START

Last season, any hope of a playoff appearance all but vanished after the Raptors opened the campaign with nine consecutive losses. After tonight, the Raptors come home for four games before a five-game West Coast swing, one of two journeys out west in the first two months.

"(The start is very important), especially with what happened last year," Raptors star forward Chris Bosh said. "That kind of put us under real fast. This year, we need to get the ball rolling a little earlier, especially with those two long road trips coming up before Christmas. I think if we can really, really hit the (ground running) and surprise a lot of people, we'll be right where we want to be."

The plan for the Raptors is to score bunches of baskets in transition by racing up and down the court. It worked at times in the pre-season, but the run-and-gun offence remains a work in progress.

"I think we can wear teams down, get a lot of easy buckets," Bosh said. "I think that's the difference between this year and last year. We struggled a little bit to score because we were kind of walking the ball up playing against a set defence."

If all goes perfectly, the Raptors may have a chance to scratch and claw for a post-season berth.

"I feel optimistic," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. "I feel like we have a good team. I think we're ready to play mentally and physically, so it's time to get started."


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