Major week starts in Minny

MIKE GANTER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:26 AM ET

Satchel Paige is credited with the quote "Don't look back -- something might be gaining on you," but it was Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell channelling that message yesterday.

Mitchell, who is as likely to give any one game more credence than the next as he is to be found shouting the media's praises from a tall building, broke his own rule yesterday when he admitted that the club's final three games before the all-star break -- against Minnesota, San Antonio and New Jersey -- just might have some added significance.

And it's all based on the crowded Eastern Conference standings where the Raptors sit fifth overall, 11/2 games behind fourth-place Cleveland and 21/2 games ahead of sixth-place Washington. They also are only four games out of third place, which would guarantee them home-court advantage in the first round, but just 61/2 games ahead of ninth place, a spot which would guarantee them an early vacation.

PRECARIOUS SPOT

All of that has Mitchell hoping to solidify or improve on the Raptors' fifth-place standing with those three games in the next four nights.

While Mitchell believes a team such as the Orlando Magic with 32 wins will make the playoffs barring a full-scale collapse, he sees his Raptors in a much more precarious position.

"We're still in a dogfight," Mitchell said.

"We want to finish strong. These (last three games before the break) are important because we're getting to that point where the season is short now. You're getting down to where you have 30-plus games left to go. After the all-star break you have a two-month season."

Mitchell says the only team in the East that really is beyond making a playoff charge is the Miami Heat.

"If you have 18 or 19 wins you are still in it for the seventh and eighth spots," he said. "If you have more wins -- we have 26 wins -- you don't want to be looking behind you. You want to keep playing well. Our whole thing is just worry about ourselves and not worry about anything else. Just go out and play."

Mitchell was asked if he thought any of his players were perhaps thinking they were locked into that fourth, fifth, sixth grouping in the East.

"I hope not," Mitchell said. "I don't think so, but I hope not."

Tonight in Minneapolis, the Raptors face another team they ought to be able to beat. Of course that's the way the Los Angeles Clippers looked coming in on Friday. Mitchell was still seething at 2:30 yesterday morning, unable to get to sleep, as he replayed that failed opportunity.

The Timberwolves have only 10 wins this season, but five of those wins have come in the team's past 10 games.

Al Jefferson, the biggest piece the Timberwolves got back in the Kevin Garnett trade, is the focal point of the Minnesota offence, which in a way is good news for Toronto.

When the Raptors play an opponent where the majority of their scoring comes from the wing, they quite often find themselves in trouble. Look no further than Corey Maggette, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Rip Hamilton for examples of strong and determined wing players who have given the Raptors fits this year.

With Minnesota's strength up front, the Raptors should not have the same kind of problems they encountered on Friday.

"With a post guy, if you trap them good you can go get the ball out of his hands," Mitchell said. "The thing about a guy on the perimeter, when he faces you up, the defence is back on its heels and when he penetrates he sucks the defence in and you open yourself up to offensive rebounds and draw and kicks."

The Raptors won't have to deal with that type of player against the Timberwolves, but if they underestimate them the way they underestimated the Clippers on Friday, some of those teams gaining on them are going to get a whole lot bigger in that rear-view mirror.


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