Crowning a new era

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:43 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- In the last few years, the Raptors have been called pathetic, hopeless and brutal.

And sometimes, that was being kind.

Now they can be called division champions, for first time in franchise history.

Toronto's 94-85 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wachovia Center last night, combined with the New Jersey Nets' 105-74 loss to the Bulls in Chicago, ensures the 43-33 Raptors the Atlantic Division honours, with six regular-season games remaining.

Head coach Sam Mitchell believes that winning the division may be the turning point for the 12-year-old franchise.

"You come to all these arenas and they have division championship banners up in the rafters. If you are trying to start a culture of winning, these guys need to start seeing the fruits of their labour and those (division titles) are important," he said.

"Now we're setting the standard for how Toronto basketball has to be played and what the expectations are," added point guard T.J. Ford, of winning the division.

Despite a late charge by the 76ers, who erased a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter to pull to within six with under three minutes left, the Raptors were able to hold on for the win.

The Raptors displayed little energy and not a lot of enthusiasm against the lowly 76ers for two quarters, before going on a 15-point run to end the third, making 10 consecutive field goals between 9:09 and 1:55 of that frame.

It was one of those games where the boxscore told a different story than the final score, as the 76ers finished ahead of the Raptors in rebounds, assists, three-point shooting, points in the paint, second-chance points and fast-break points.

Indeed, in the latter two categories, the Raptors came up with goose eggs.

But on the strength of 47% shooting from the field, a big game from Chris Bosh and a balanced attack, where six players finished in double-digits, the Raptors emerged victorious.

Bosh, who played the first 36 minutes, picked up his seventh straight double-double , and 39th of the season, with 23 points, 13 rebounds and four steals.

"I didn't see it coming," Bosh said of the Raptors' surprisingly quick rise this season. "But I knew eventually it would and when it came I promised myself I would be ready and it has been a great ride so far."

Point guards Ford and Jose Calderon combined for 21 points and 12 assists, while Andre Iguodala finished with 20 points, seven boards and seven assists for Philadelphia.

The victory also put the Raptors 10 games over .500 for the first time since the 2000-01 season when they had the exact same record on the same date (April 6).

Winning the division does not guarantee the Raptors home-court advantage, as they will have to stave off the charging Miami Heat and hold on to third place in the Eastern Conference to ensure opening the playoffs at the Air Canada Centre.

Mitchell admits that he finds it hard to believe some days that his team are division champs and are playoff-bound, just two seasons after management traded one-time franchise player Vince Carter for very little in return.

"When I got the job, I'm thinking I've got a young player on the rise in Chris Bosh. And I've got Vince Carter," he said. "And a third of the way through the (2004-05) season, Vince Carter's gone. And I'm realizing then, we're going to have to change and we might not be the playoff team we hoped."

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REPORT CARD

B Offence: Shot 47% from the field and put together a very balanced scoring attack, with six players scoring in double digits.

B Defence: Gave up 10 fast-break points while scoring zero. Allowed the 76ers to shoot 42% from the field. Out-rebounded 43-38.


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