The Toronto Raptors are the only NBA team that plays north of the border. Thus, they often fly south of the radar.
However, the Raptors would be the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference if the playoffs started today. They are 29-23 after missing the postseason last season.
What really makes the Raptors interesting now is that they are full strength for the first time all season. In fact, with Reggie Evans returning last week after missing the first 51 games with a foot injury, Toronto has another player to fit into the rotation, which is going to make for some difficult playing time decisions by coach Jay Triano.
Considering their abundance of rotation-caliber players, the Raptors would seem like a candidate to perhaps pull off a major trade before Thursday's deadline. However, if Toronto is thinking of making a deal, general manager Bryan Colangelo is keeping it tightly under wraps.
Ironically, it is Colangelo who has been the subject of rumors as there is speculation he could wind up running the New Jersey Nets once Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov takes control of the sad-sack franchise.
There has been plenty of speculation that the Raptors will trade Chris Bosh as he can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. However, it appears he will stay as the Raptors are in prime position to make the playoffs, even though they seem hard-pressed to be able to re-sign Bosh in the summer.
"We don't even address it," Bosh said of the trade and free agent talk. "We're going to keep rolling. There's going to be a time and a place to talk about all that stuff and when it comes, I'm sure everybody will know about it."
Meanwhile, Triano now has the good problem of trying to find enough playing time for everyone. He says he goes by feel in determining the rotation and minutes played.
"It's not ideal because now guys are going to wonder maybe where they'll get into games, but our guys can't think about that," Triano said. "Everybody has to be ready all the time. Strange things happen and you've got to be ready to play. I think the one thing that's been an advantage that we've had is flexibility, which has allowed us to match up with what teams have thrown at us."
Mohammed the Man in the Middle for the Bobcats
The Charlotte Bobcats, at 26-25, are on course to make the playoffs for the first time in their six-year history. Part of the reason they are in contention is the play of resurgent veteran center Nazr Mohammed.
Mohammed was buried on the bench at the end of last season as coach Larry Brown spent time trying to develop DeSagana Diop into a center who could play significant minutes. Then, the Bobcats swapped centers in an off-season trade, shipping Emeka Okafor to the Hornets for Tyson Chandler.
Mohammed reported to training camp in great shape and respectfully asked Brown for a chance to play some significant minutes this season. Mohammed got his wish and has responded by averaging 8.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 0.5 assists and 17.3 minutes a game with a 116 Offensive Rating and 101 Defensive Rating.
Mohammed's playing time may lessen after the All-Star break as Chandler is back after missing 24 games with a foot injury. Furthermore, Brown likes to go with a smaller lineup with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. However, Mohammed is just thankful be seeing the floor again.
"It's amazing that when you don't play, people assume you quit or can't play anymore," Mohammed said. "Thatís why it feels good to show people I'm not done yet and can still contribute."
Durant Earning Respect
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant played in his first All-Star Game on Sunday night in Arlington, Texas and it doesn't figure to his last. He has a 29.7/7.4/2.9/39.8 line with a 115 Offensive Rating and a 102 Defensive Rating.
The Thunder is 30-21 after winning just 23 games last season, their first after moving to Oklahoma City from Seattle. The Thunder also currently is tied for the No. 5 playoff seed in the Western Conference and Durant will go a long way in determining if the franchise will qualify for the postseason for the first time since the SuperSonics made it in 2004-05.
Durant is also gaining plenty of respect around the league as Thunder opponents are making him the focus of their defensive game plans.
"I've seen boxes-and-one, guys face-guarding me, switches," Durant said. "I'm learning how to maneuver through that, find my teammates and have them make the extra pass. That's something I still work on a lot after practice. I still have a lot to learn."
Yet, Durant is a legitimate MVP candidate this season in the eyes of TNT analyst Doug Collins.
"He's consistent," Collins said. "He's fun to watch. A big part of being a star is that charisma, that energy, where you walk out onto the floor and you bring a presence. He has that. At the same time, he's incredibly humble, his team is winning. They've done a nice job putting pieces around him. They've got a lot of draft picks. They are in the thick of things in the playoff race. As long as they are, you have to start talking about him."
Up-and-Down Suns Unpredictable in Second Half
There may be no more interesting team to follow during the stretch run of the regular season than the Phoenix Suns, who have had an erratic season to this point.
They were the surprise of the league when they bolted to a 14-3 start, then proceeded to lose 19 of their next 28 games. Just when it seemed the Suns were getting ready to set with a record that had dropped to nearly .500 at 23-22, they ran off fifth straight victories before losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in their last game before the All-Star break.
In all, the Suns are 28-23 and would be the seventh seed in the Western Conference if the playoffs started now.
That leads to the question of how the Suns will finish. Will they make a late-season push or collapse? How will they fare without All-Star forward Amar's Stoudemire, who appears certain to be traded, most likely to the Cavaliers in exchange for center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and forward J.J. Hickson?
"It's a hard question to answer," coach Alvin Gentry said. "When we're ready to play and play with a whole lot of energy and passion, we're very good. When we don't do that, we're not very good. We become a very, very average team."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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