Defence key as Raps face tough trip

MIKE GANTER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:46 AM ET

Timing is everything in professional sports and the Raptors timing is good and bad as they make their first foray West.

The good is the defensive principles and effort that were looking so promising early in the year and got lost somewhere along the way appear to be back.

Head coach Sam Mitchell felt the defensive effort Friday against Atlanta was the best since the opening three games of the season.

The bad is that the team's next three opponents -- Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nugget and Utah Jazz -- are a combined 34-13 so far this season and on their home courts are a combined 21-4.

In fact, the Raptors are not going to face a team with a record worse than their own 8-7 again until Dec. 10 when they play host to the Indiana Pacers. After that monster three-game trip west, the Raps come home to face the 11-6 Portland Trail Blazers and then on the road to see LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, who have a 13-3 mark before the Pacers pay their first visit to the ACC since the Jermaine O'Neal for T.J. Ford deal.

There is the real potential that by that time, the record could be well south of the .500 mark.

In order to avoid such a fall, the Raps recent defensive resurgence is going to have to be maintained and probably improved upon.

O'Neal's return -- it's not a given he will play tonight against the Lakers but the chances are much better after he took part in practice yesterday -- should help.

As a spectator for the past two games -- he spent both games on the trainers table in front of a television while his ankle and knee were worked on -- O'Neal was impressed with what he observed.

"We are making great strides," O'Neal said. "Basically, you can drill all you want. You can run practices, you can scrimmage but if you don't have the will to be a good defensive team than you are not going to be a good defensive team."

O'Neal has come away from his time off convinced this team now wants to be that kind of will.

"Really, I think guys were just getting a little embarrassed," he said. "I don't want to be premature and say we're over the hump, but the guys are really taking the challenge. You see guys are looking at the scouting reports a lot more before games and that's the great character of our team.

"Obviously, we know we've been getting killed on the defensive part of the floor. Now guys are talking more about it even in general conversation among players, not necessarily only in meetings. That's a good sign."

Bosh, who consistently grades out highest on the team defensively when Mitchell and his coaches dissect game tape, is seeing to too.

"Even when we make mistakes, we have guys helping out," Bosh said of the difference he is seeing in his teammates. "Jamario Moon is taking charges. Andrea (Bargnani) is taking big charges. I mean, we're there now. Even if you do beat one of our guys, we have someone there to help and I think that's the main thing we need on defence."

Fifteen games into the season, the Raptors pretty much know what they have and what they need to do in order to be successful.

"If we plan on doing anything this year, we have to be a better defensive team," O'Neal said.

"We've given up a lot of double-digit leads basically because we stopped playing defence."

Any repeat of that over this next five games and things could get ugly for the Raptors.


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