Building on success

The return to the lineup of Jorge Garbajosa, among others, gives Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell...

The return to the lineup of Jorge Garbajosa, among others, gives Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell renewed hope as the Atlantic Division-leading club hits the road starting tonight in New Jersey. (Toronto Sun File/Dave Thomas)

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

First-place teams come in all shapes, sizes and, yes, even win-loss records.

As it relates to the latter, Raptors coach Sam Mitchell is not going to apologize for his club's lowly/lofty status.

Never mind that it merely takes a record of 15-17 to top the Atlantic Division right now, this is the deepest into any season that the Raptors have been in first place.

Sure, they've had much better records in past Januarys.

Sure, their win percentage of .441 would, prior to games last night, have put them no better than fourth in four of the NBA's six divisions and last in two of them.

And sure, that record is better than just five of the 15 teams in the West.

But with a lineup that appears to be getting healthier by the game, Mitchell is starting to sound encouraged.

"No one envisioned at the start of the season that you could (be in first place) with a below-.500 record," Mitchell said yesterday.

"Whatever record it takes, that's what it is. I just feel that if we can get healthy, we have as good a chance as anybody to win it."

The Raptors have the chance to improve that position on a three-game trip that begins tonight in New Jersey, continues to Milwaukee tomorrow and includes another Atlantic team, Boston, on Friday.

The opener of that little journey actually is a first-place "showdown" against Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and the rest of the 14-19 New Jersey Nets.

SWEEP

A sweep of its next three games -- a tall order given the Raps' 5-14 road record -- and the team would crack the .500 barrier and actually take a comfortable divisional lead.

"About a month ago, we weren't thinking of being in this spot," Raptors forward Joey Graham said yesterday. "But coming into the season, we knew we had a good team. We knew we had the potential to be first in the Atlantic.

"One of our goals coming in was trying to make it to the playoffs and I think we're on our way right now."

That the Raptors even can mention the post-season 34 games into the season can be attributed to a 10-5 record on their home court.

That doubles as encouraging news considering that when the team returns home this Sunday to face the Dallas Mavericks, 29 of its final 48 games will be played here.

"We can definitely take advantage of it," said Raptors guard T.J. Ford, who scored 20 points in a win over Washington Sunday after returning from an ankle injury.

"We feel confident with the way we have been playing."

Now that he has more bodies back -- Jorge Garbajosa also returned Sunday -- Mitchell has renewed hope.

"We still have guys injured, but it was nice to have our players back," he said. "It's just nice to have the 12 guys that you envisioned having on your roster for opening night.

"Now if we can just get them healthy ... I feel we've got a chance to be a pretty good basketball team."


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