The NBA schedule is about to smack the Raptors upside the head.
Beginning next Sunday, with a game at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, the Raptors play five games in nine days out west, and head coach Sam Mitchell said yesterday it's crucial his team picks up a win or two this week before boarding the team's chartered plane.
The Raptors face the undefeated Philadelphia 76ers (3-0) tomorrow night, followed by a game against the improving Atlanta Hawks (2-1) on Friday. Both games are at the Air Canada Centre.
"You would like to get those two before you go on a long road trip," Mitchell said of this week's contests.
As their records indicate, the 76ers and Hawks are no longer pushovers and, in fact, Mitchell believes the entire Eastern Conference has improved.
"I laugh all the time when people talk about the Eastern Conference being weak. Let the experts keep predicting ... the East keeps proving them wrong."
The key to success for the 1-2 Raptors is their fast-break offence. Against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, the Raptors ran away with a victory while they allowed the San Antonio Spurs to come into the ACC on Sunday and slow the game down, resulting in a 103-94 loss.
Yesterday at practice, Mitchell had his team working on the fast break. That's the way he wants to play all season, and he plans to drill that into his players until it becomes second nature.
"It takes time to develop that mentality, but it's going to come," the coach said. "They understand that's the way we're built to play. We're not built to throw the ball inside and slug it out with people. We're built to get the ball up, get out in the open court, run the floor and play basketball.
"But we still have a long ways to go."
At least one of his players, first-year swingman Anthony Parker, won't need motivation to play the 76ers tomorrow.
Parker was dealt to Philadelphia after being drafted by the New Jersey Nets in 1997, but he played very few minutes under coach Larry Brown and was eventually shipped to Orlando. He never really got the chance to develop his game in the NBA, thanks largely to sitting on the bench in Philly, and ended up playing five seasons for Maccabi Tel Aviv, before signing on with the Raptors this season.
"Those three years I didn't play set me back," he said. "Basketball is so much instinct and muscle memory and you lose that over time by not being in a competitive situations."
Parker has come to terms with his downtime in Philadelphia. Brown is not known for giving rookies many minutes, and Parker had some great players ahead of him in the rotation, including Allen Iverson and Jerry Stackhouse.
"I remember sitting on the sidelines, in street clothes, working out before the game, eating pretzels in the locker room when the national anthem's going," he said, when asked of his memories of Philadelphia. "It was not a great time for me basketball-wise and personally."