Extra incentive for Raps

MIKE GANTER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

ORLANDO -- Sam Mitchell has been hammering home the need for home-court advantage well before his Raptors secured a playoff berth.

Now there's added incentive. There's a first-round opponent out there ripe for the picking and the Raptors are in position to make that their advantage.

In order to get home court in the first round, the Raps will almost certainly need to hold onto the third place standing in the Eastern Conference. They owned a 11/2 game edge on Miami heading into last night, but the Heat has a more favourable schedule.

The extra carrot is a likely first-round clash with the suddenly injury-plagued Washington Wizards.

Two weeks ago, that matchup did not look nearly as enticing as it does today in the wake of injuries to Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas.

There's not a better first-round matchup out there.

"That's about 40% or 50% of their offence," Chris Bosh said as the Raptors get set to play in Philly tonight.

"We are very aware that we are in a race for third place right now," he said. "Every game means something. You can't take a day off. Home court is very important, so we are going to keep playing."

And while the injuries are piling up for the Wizards, who have a four-game hold on the sixth spot over the New Jersey Nets, the Raptors could be getting one of their key contributors back this Sunday when they play host to the Chicago Bulls.

"What day is it today," Bargnani replied when asked if Sunday was a realistic return date for the rookie they call Big Rook.

The Raptors have not only survived Bargnani's absence since an emergency appendectomy took him out of the lineup just over two weeks ago, but also that of Jorge Garbajosa, who mangled his left ankle five days after Bargnani was lost.

While there is no chance of Garbajosa returning before the Raptors open training this fall, Bargnani's return would once again force teams to extend their defences.

Following his team's win on Wednesday, Mitchell, who is normally loath to single out any of his players for special recognition, noted Bosh's heavy workload in the absence of the Raptors' two big internationals.

"The minutes that he's having to play with the injuries we have had, he has just been unbelievable," Mitchell said.

Bargnani's return, whether it's Sunday at home against Chicago or Monday in Minneapolis, should allow Mitchell to get Bosh a little more rest for the playoffs.

Wizards head coach Eddie Jordan can only wish his lead-up to the playoffs were so trouble-free.


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