Raps meet every challenge

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

Sam Mitchell pumped his fist emotionally and enthusiastically with 2.2 seconds to play.

He wouldn't call it celebrating. But it was.

Bryan Colangelo's face contorted in the final seconds: It may not have looked like celebration, but it was.

Nothing ever comes easily for the Raptors. Not this remarkable season. Not finishing first. Not winning their division. Not clinching home- court advantage for the playoffs' first round last night.

Not even determining which team they will face in the playoffs -- whether it be the decimated Washington Wizards or the evil incarnate, Vince Carter, and the New Jersey Nets.

But that will be determined on another day, another time. What is left of the Raptors season has been reduced to scoreboard watching and waiting to see when Andrea Bargnani returns, and maybe dreaming. Or, to use the Ken Dryden word, imagining.

Who would have imagined that in a game the Raptors needed most, that Joey Graham -- written off for all but dead at times this season -- would come out of a sick bed in the morning to score 19 points in the early evening.

Who would have imagined that in a game the Raptors needed most, Kris Humphries -- acquired in a deal for Rafael Araujo and who 17 times this season didn't get a single minute of playing time -- came off the bench to score 12 points, bring down five rebounds, make a difference.

Who would have imagined any of this in the season that has almost been too good and too remarkable to believe?

Making the playoff was a longshot in November. Winning the division was even longer. Home-court advantage? Well, how much would any of us have wagered against that?

This is a team that began with five wins and 10 losses.

But this has been a season of performance and growth and hope -- and the real hope is just beginning. There are two regular-season games to play, none of them meaningful aside from whatever minutes Bargnani gets in before the playoffs.

But the contributions this Raptors team now gets from every player not named Morris Peterson is deep and impressive.

Last night, Jose Calderon had to do more because T.J. Ford got in early foul trouble. Calderon ran the offence, scored 18 points, managed six assists and controlled the ball late when it mattered most.

Last night, the Raptors lineup, minus Bargnani and the not-returning Jorge Garbajosa, still had more depth than the team it played against.

The Raptors bench outscored the Knicks bench 34-31.

The biggest basket was scored by Joey Graham, the last remaining remnant of the one-sided Carter deal. At times, he has looked like a player and at other times, a lost cause. Now, with his seventh consecutive game in double figures, he is a player again.

Not the player who in a 31-game span earlier this season scored more than 10 points only once.

The emergence of Humphries is just another chapter in a story that gets better with each passing day.

"We wanted him to run, rebound, play defence," said assistant coach Jim Todd. "He didn't want to do that. He wanted to be more of a finesse guy. We wanted him to be an energy guy.

"It's taken a little longer to understand than we hoped."

He understands now.

That's what Sam Mitchell has accomplished during a season in which his team has established itself, yet so has the coach. The Raptors stayed even when Chris Bosh went down for 12 games. They found a way to keep winning when Bargnani had his emergency appendectomy and kept right on going when the intelligence of Garbajosa was lost to the team.

"Sam told them from the beginning: There will be a time for everyone," said Todd. "He said certain guys are going to have to be able to go on certain nights. He kept his word and our guys have done their part."

Once again in Toronto, scoreboard watching has taken on a life of its own. Only this time, it can't eliminate the home team. All it does is establish an opponent.


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