Even with his sweaty players walking past, Raptors coach Sam Mitchell suggested after practice yesterday that he can smell a winning streak coming on.
Now that second-year forward Andrea Bargnani has proved he still is capable of putting together a big game in the NBA -- as evidenced by his 20-point, seven-assist, seven-rebound night against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday -- Mitchell believes his team is that much closer to going on a big run, and perhaps solidifying home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
With the exception of Bargnani, the Raptors starters have played well of late. Power forward Chris Bosh and point guard Jose Calderon have been solid all season, but starting shooting guard Anthony Parker has come into his own the past few games and rookie small forward Jamario Moon has been on more than he has been off this season.
The key is to get Bargnani, who has struggled for most of the season, back to where he was last season and at the start of this campaign. Mitchell also wants more consistency out of his top two or three rotation players, specifically Carlos Delfino and Jason Kapono.
"I feel like we have the confidence (to go on a streak) and I know we're going to play hard and compete," Mitchell said.
"(But) the key is getting enough of our guys consistent. If we can get six, seven guys playing consistent basketball, then you can win six, seven, eight (in a row), because that's what it takes.
"Two guys playing great is not going to do it. You need that fourth of fifth guy, whether they're in your starting lineup, or coming off the bench."
Delfino is a perfect example of the inconsistency to which Mitchell spoke about. The first-year Raptor came off the bench and contributed 15 points in Toronto's surprising 114-112 win over the NBA-leading Celtics at the TD Bank- north Garden. But in the two games before that, he was a combined 0-for-9 from the field with exactly zero points.
If there ever was a good time for the Raptors to put a streak together, it's now. Six of the team's nine games leading up to next month's all-star break are at the Air Canada Centre, and there is not a multi-game road trip until March.
As for Bargnani, the seven-footer waved aside suggestions yesterday that the pressure of not playing well has played with his mind this season.
"Outside the court I don't have any problem," he said. "I'm trying to push more myself and try to get better. Of course, when you play bad, you're not happy. You just try to play better."
Bargnani said that he doesn't read the newspapers on this side of the Atlantic, only when he is at home, so he is unaware of the hand-wringing over his recent play. But even if he was, being the centre of attention is nothing new, he said.
"People have been talking about me since I was 16 years old. So that's not a problem," he said.
Mitchell was asked again yesterday if he had considered moving Bargnani back to the bench, and starting the veteran Rasho Nesterovic again. But the coach insisted that he is going to start Bargnani, an all-rookie selection last season, come hell or high water.
For one thing, the coach said, he has to learn how to play the centre position, and to play with all-star power forward Bosh. And the best way to do that is by starting, and playing major minutes (that is, if he doesn't run into foul trouble).
"Centre and point guard are the two hardest positions in the NBA to play. Sometimes you've got to strip it down ... I wouldn't say start over ... but to go all the way back down to the basics," Mitchell said. "He has to get out there and do it. He has to get out there and guard the Kevin Garnetts, the Kendrick Perkins, the Eddie Currys. He has got to guard those guys.
"If I didn't put him back out there and let him learn in painstaking ways sometimes, we're going to start the same process over next year. The vision is for he and Chris to play together, for all the offensive reasons, and for all the defensive reasons, too."
The Raptors play host to the Milwaukee Bucks tonight.