Raps lacking consistency

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:34 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- As good a mystery and suspense director as Alfred Hitchcock was, his audience would be well rewarded for staying with the plot twists in the course of a couple of hours.

Fans of the Toronto Raptors -- and to a great extent the cast itself -- have hung in almost half a season, but have yet to sort out the heroes, villains and those caught somewhere between.

The past three games are a perfect example: In two, they had no business winning with a reduced lineup and then Monday in Milwaukee they were en route to romping only to see a 10-point lead end up in the loss column for the eighth time this year, second most in the NBA. What on earth could tomorrow in Washington bring? Having already suffered the indignity of falling to the 4-30 Oklahoma Thunder from the West, there are no guarantees the East's last place Wizards won't steal just their eighth win at Toronto's expense.

SORT IT OUT

By all means, the Raptors should take their time sorting out this already eventful season, but please keep an eye on the calendar and the standings. The 14-21 team has to make up that seven-game deficit sometime before the snow melts if it hopes to bring playoffs back to the Air Canada Centre.

General manager Bryan Colangelo can make a trade, or go another route such as bring back swingman Carlos Delfino, a possibility the GM himself floated last week. But to do so runs counter to Colangelo's faith that he could sacrifice point guard T.J. Ford in acquiring Jermaine O'Neal, that Andrea Bargnani is the real deal, that Roko Ukic and Will Solomon can spell off Jose Calderon with Ford gone and that Joey Graham can be tamed.

Change undoubtedly is needed, but to what degree? Colangelo might have played his biggest card already in banishing coach Sam Mitchell to the golf course. Jay Triano, 6-12 since taking over, is certain to see the season through, but the experiment with the Canadian at the controls won't last until next year if the wheels spin through April.

Forward Jake Voskuhl spoke optimistically of a five- or six-game run after the team upended Houston and Orlando, no doubt seeing Milwaukee, Washington and Memphis on the schedule. But if the Raptors don't catch fire this week, hands up if you like their chances against Boston back-to-back and then Phoenix a week Sunday.

The players think highly of Triano, who has taken them back to school for Defence 101 and given them more say in the game's outcome rather than rely so much on Bosh for up to 40 minutes.

But Triano can't coddle them and has enough clout to be more critical in public. He was too forgiving when they were outscored 13-0 in the final two-minute stretch on Monday, when attention to detail and a better grip on the ball should have nursed a four-point lead to the buzzer and the first three-game streak since November.

"I thought we played good defence right through to the end," Triano maintained afterwards, choosing to gloss over that Bargnani, among others, didn't close strong in that area. "(An official's) blown call with the game tied should've been our ball. (Francisco) Elson travelled and it went out of bounds off his own foot. That hurts.

"They get a deflection right to Charlie Bell for a three pointer in front of our bench with a guy on him. Luke Ridnour, a below 30% three-point shooter, hits one with a second left on the shot clock and then another.

"That's four plays in a row where the right thing happened for them. They made clutch plays, so I can't fault our guys."

Without O'Neal the Raptors are in enough of a bind. But taking court general Calderon out of the mix is worse. For two games the Solomon-Ukic tandem held the fort, then Solomon came up 2-for-13 against the Bucks, missing a decisive open look on a three pointer that Bosh dished him. Toronto shooters went 0-for-5 as the game slipped away, while Bosh didn't get much chance to add to his 31 points at the end.

"I would've liked to have got the ball to Chris," Triano said of Solomon's clanked trey from the left wing, "but he had been fouled on the play before and (Milwaukee) leaned on him. Will was wide open. You have to take the wide-open shot when you have it."

Solomon took his share of the blame for flubbing a play the Raptors work on daily.

"If you practice them every day, you're supposed to take them in a game," he said. "That's basketball, that was the game. We were trying to get Bosh the ball the whole game, but they changed defensive schemes on him.

"Roko and I are getting confidence in ourselves and confidence playing with the team. We have to keep that in mind."

Other issues yet unresolved are whether Anthony Parker is the long-term answer at starting shooting guard and how best to utilize the inconsistent Jason Kapono and Chris Humphries, the latter Mitchell once described as "an X factor" in team success.

You just can't help wondering where all of this is leading.


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