TORONTO - The marathon begins on Boxing Day in Cleveland for the Raptors.
If the team is still standing at the end of January it will be nothing short of a miracle.
The Raptorsí 66-game schedule does not come out of the gate like a lion, but the month of January is the kind of obstacle that will test this teamís resolve like never before in team history.
The worst of it is a five-games-in-six-days stretch between Jan. 6 and Jan. 11. The Raps host New Jersey on the 6th, fly to Philly the next day to play the Sixers, enjoy the only day off of this six-days-in-hell stretch and then get right back on this lockout-sponsored merry-go-round with the teams only back-to-back-to-back games ó home to Minny, at Washington and then home to Sacramento.
If thereís a bright spot in there it is that the only playoff team from a year ago in that group is the Sixers and all that got them was a quick thanks-for-coming-out as the Miami Heat sent them packing rather quickly.
All told the Raps will play 12 of the 19 games away from the ACC in the month of January. The 19 games in the month marks the most in team history.
Once they get past that murderous stretch of five in six, they have a three-games-in-five-days trip that starts in Chicago, continues on to Atlanta and then ends in Boston.
The Raps are home for a single game with Portland before itís out west for a four-game west coast swing and then, for whatever reason, a fifth game in New Jersey.
February, March, and April are cakewalks compared to the travel hell and sheer volume of basketball that January will demand.
Shoehorning 66 games into basically four months is the reason for this kind of madness, but if there is solace for the Raptors it comes in knowing every team in the Association will have their own murderous stretch.
Unbelievably, given the short shrift the Raptors normally get from the NBA schedule maker, there are actually teams that have more onerous schedules than the only team that resides outside the United States.
Seven NBA teams have two stints of five games in six nights to the one the Raptors will endure in January.
And when it comes to those nasty back-to-back-to-back scenarios the Raps only have to swallow one of them. With 42 in the league this year more than a handful of teams will be doing that at least twice.
The Toronto basketball fan though will pay yet another hefty price for the lockout when one considers who they wonít be able to see come to their city.
Teams you will not see at all visit the ACC this season include Steve Nashís Phoenix Suns, the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, Blake Griffinís Los Angeles Clippers and Kevin Durantís up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thatís four quality teams MLSE wonít get a chance to cash in on so you know ownership canít be too happy with the schedule either.
The good news is season ticket holders will not be asked to pay to see the New Orleans Hornets or the Utah Jazz.
From a competitive balance standpoint the six teams the Raps see the most this year ó a total of four times each ó include the New York Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and New Jersey Nets.
Against those six teams last year, the Raps had a combined record of 7-15.
Again, on the positive side of the ledger is the schedule against the western conference teams. The Raps went 9-21 vs. western conference teams a year go playing each club home and away. This season the only western conference teams they will see twice are the Denver Nuggets, the Houston Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies. While the Griz and the Nuggets made the playoffs a year ago, the Nuggets are no where near the team they were eight months ago. Endurance though is going to be the watchword of the season for the Raptors and every team in the Association.
Days off will be few and far between and a teams ability to practice may well be dictated by how well they can withstand the rigours of the schedule.
Itís a formula that has even the most optimistic basketball fan cringing at the prospect of an injury-plagued season.
Never has paying attention to diet, rest, and basic good health been as important as it will be this season.
If the Raptors can get through January and somehow avoid the injury bug they could actually find themselves in a good position to take advantage of the schedule hardships many of their opponents will be going through in February, March and April.