It's time, Raptors

Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell is more than aware that bench players often use new-found...

Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell is more than aware that bench players often use new-found minutes to step up and help their team win when key players are out. (Toronto Sun/Craig Robertson)

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

The New Jersey Nets took the Raptors to the cleaners two years ago when they acquired Vince Carter for a couple of journeymen and a bag of marbles, or whatever it was.

But now it's Toronto's turn.

The Raptors and Nets are neck-to-neck in the race for first-place in the mediocre Atlantic Division and a guaranteed playoff berth.

The Nets hold the edge with a 20-20 record, 11/2 games ahead of the 19-22 Raps. But with news out of Jersey yesterday that star forward Richard Jefferson will undergo surgery on his right ankle today, the Raptors have been afforded a golden opportunity to take control of the division.

Jefferson is expected to be out for at least four weeks. That's two key players out for the reeling Nets, with Nenad Krstic (knee) already gone for the rest of the season.

The Nets are considered to be the class of the division. But with injuries mounting and the fact that the ever-improving Raptors have put most of their difficult road trips already behind them, first place is now up for grabs.

Still, nobody within the Raps organization is celebrating Jefferson's misfortune.

"It does no good for us to even think about it," said head coach Sam Mitchell yesterday following a practice at the Air Canada Centre. "We still have to take care of our business. We still have to go out and win games. (What happened to Jefferson) doesn't matter. Let's say they don't win. If we don't win, what good does it do us?

"If we just continue to keep our nose to the grindstone and play well and win games, then, come April everything will take care of itself."

Mitchell is more than aware that bench players often use new-found minutes to step up and help their team win when key players are out. When Chris Bosh missed 12 games in December and January with a sore knee, the Raps played .500 ball.

"Those guys have been playing well," he said of the Nets. "With Vince, with Jason Kidd, the way they're playing, and now they're starting to put those shooters on the court, you've got to pick your poison."

Raps guard T.J. Ford said he wouldn't wish surgery on anyone, but added that it is time for the Raps to make a serious run at first. Ford has an injury of his own, a sprained right ankle, but said good teams rise above the hurts.

"Injuries are part of the NBA season," he said. "It's just how it shakes out sometimes. It also creates opportunities for those guys who wouldn't expect minutes."


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