Raptors jump back into the fire

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey reacts to a call during a game against the Celtics at TD Garden in...

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey reacts to a call during a game against the Celtics at TD Garden in Boston, Mass., Jan. 18, 2012. (ADAM HUNGER/Reuters)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:15 PM ET

If you’re being honest with yourself, you can’t say you didn’t see this coming.

The season is not quite a month old and the Raptors are in the midst of a six-game losing streak that could grow to 12 if the Raps don’t catch a break or two.

That’s not criticism, that’s the reality of the 2011-12 NBA season. Even to suggest the possibility of a 12-game skid is admittedly harsh, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility in the Raptors’ current circumstances.

Despite it all head coach Dwane Casey and, by various accounts from behind the scenes, the Raps as a whole, remain an upbeat group.

But that’s not to say they’re fine with the losing.

Put yourself in Casey’s shoes. He’s coming off a year where his team was 57-25 and went on to win an NBA championship. Losing like this is foreign to him and as he said on Thursday unacceptable for any professional athlete.

Participate in enough of his post-game and post-practice chats with the media and Casey comes across as a guy who is trying to convince himself as much as anyone else of the need for patience.

“I’m going to preach patience and I have to have patience,” Casey said again on Thursday. “Coming from a 50-60 win team last year it’s tough but we have a young team, a talented team and the fundamental mistakes we are making are teachable and correctable mistakes.”

A rare practice on Thursday at the Air Canada Centre, the second Raptors practice in three days but just the fourth in the month of January, was a perfect window to where the Raptors are right now.

Under one basket off to the side, Casey stood tinkering with sophomore Ed Davis’ free-throw technique.

Under one of the two baskets on the main court, DeMar DeRozan was repeatedly pounded with the big pads covering assistant Eric Hughes’ arms as Hughes tried to replicate the beating DeRozan normally takes as he ventures to the hoop.

Absorbing that kind of punishment and still finishing — let’s face it, DeRozan isn’t getting the calls, just yet, some of the more elite wings in the league get from officials — is exactly the practice that will make DeRozan a better attacker of the basket.

In short, the Raptors are still very much a team developing its core players.

They were denied a crucial summer league to get their youngsters up to speed so you end up with a work in progress.

Casey half-jokes that the current schedule is basically exhibition for him, the only difference being these games count in the standings.

Few teams — Cleveland, Minnesota, Charlotte being the others that first jump to mind — would have benefitted as much from a regular pre-season as the Raptors.

Not only are they young and in need of as much repetition as possible, but they have completely changed their basketball philosophy, going from a team that tried to score with its opponents to a team that focuses first and foremost on getting stops.

Following Friday’s game with the Portland Trail Blazers, another team that on paper is significantly more talented than the Raps, awaits a five-game road swing that starts in the far west against Blake Griffin’s Los Angeles Clippers and ends eight nights later in New Jersey against a team closer to the Raps’ level.

The good news is that at some point in the trip, perhaps as early as Sunday in Los Angeles the Raptors will welcome Andrea Bargnani back on to the court.

Bargnani, the early season feel-good story for the Raps, has not played in the past four games and is not expected back Friday but there are signs that a return is close.

Bargnani, out with a calf strain, was initially set to return to practice Thursday, until a last second decision by the training staff held him out.

The team has another practice scheduled for Saturday at the beautiful UCLA campus. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bargnani a full go for that one and then, barring any problems, rejoin the team Sunday against the Clippers.

Jerryd Bayless, a mostly untapped source of some much-needed offence has not played in a dozen games but ran through his second consecutive full practice on Thursday. His sprained ankle is slowly but surely coming along and if he’s not back in the lineup Friday which seems to be a long shot, he could make his return the same night as Bargnani.

Neither player will return to their old form. That will take a few games, but getting back to a full roster, should give Casey a chance to get some of those wins that keep a team from getting overly discouraged.


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