Confidence is extinct

FRANK ZICARELLI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:04 AM ET

EAST RUTHERFORD -- It's official: The Raptors are a bunch of losers.

With last night's 99-90 loss to the host New Jersey Nets, the Raptors sport a losing record as the post-season beckons and as questions surrounding the team intensify.

While guaranteed of a playoff berth, the Raptors continue to show no signs of playing post-season basketball.

CAN'T STEP UP

They still can't defend for extended stretches, still make poor decisions with the basketball, still play with no urgency and can't find a way to step up in the fourth quarter, signs that all lead to an early April exit.

Even if they do get their desired matchup against an unproven Orlando team,the way the Raptors are playing, they'd be lucky to beat the no-name Miami Heat in a seven-game series.

Don't look now, but the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks are two games in arrears of the Raptors, who suddenly face the possibility of opening the playoffs against Boston.

With five games remaining, there still exists time to hone their game, but clearly time is running out on the Raptors.

There was no energy when the ball was tipped, an expected byproduct of playing a back-to-back set, but New Jersey also played on Friday and seemed more prepared to compete. There really are no excuses for the inexcuseable way the Raptors are limping into the playoffs.

"Right now, we're struggling. It's obvious,'' veteran Rasho Nesterovic said after yet another strong performance.

"We have to get everybody on the same page. We have to refocus, especially on defence. Everybody has to know what we're doing."

The Raptors will have today off and will then have two rare off-days to practise, to recommit themselves, to take stock as another winnable game looms with Milwaukee coming to town on Wednesday.

It's no secret the Raptors are a jump-shot happy team, but when they can't make shots there's nothing to fall back on.

Last night, the Raptors went 3-of-22 from beyond the arc, their worst three-point shooting effort of the night from three-point range.

Even Chris Bosh has disappeared during stretches, either on his own by being too passive or indecisive or when his teammates overlook him.

Bosh had a size and skill advantage over Trenton Hassell, but the Raptors couldn't take advantage of the apparent mismatch.

"It's not pretty, but we have to play through it,'' Nesterovic said of the team's protracted funk.

"It's not effort. We're just not focused as much as we should be in the fourth quarter. Couple of mental mistakes on defence, couple of mental mistakes on offence.''

Sam Mitchell is becoming more irritated with each passing loss.

"We understand we're not playing as well as we're capable,'' Mitchell said in a post-game session that included the f-bomb. "There's no secret.

"Do you (media) think we don't care? You think you're more frustrated than us. It's not your job. It's our job.

"We care. They're playing hard, but sometimes you go through some tough times."

NEED A WIN

Mitchell admits a win will go a long way in helping the Raptors regain their confidence.

"Just one game,'' he said. "It's all confidence. We've lost games in the past month and a half and our confidence is dented, but it's one game.

"One game leads to another good game and all of a sudden ... We just have to continue to work, stay positive and we'll be all right.

"We're all frustrated. We expect more out of ourselves, but we also understand that you go through some times."

None more than these current times.


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