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Red-hot Raptors close in on .500 Add to ...

A rested team is a winning team.

The Toronto Raptors certainly proved to be the opposite when they played 30 games in the first 54 days of the 2009-10 NBA schedule.

With the benefit of five days off in their past eight, and a large holiday crowd of 18,979 at the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors looked like an energized, purposeful group on their way to a thrilling 107-103 win over the Charlotte Bobcats last night.

Chris Bosh scored the go-ahead basket with slightly more than a minute remaining, the Raptors were able to force one more Charlotte turnover as Antoine Wright dove on a loose ball, and then Andrea Bargnani sealed it with a three-point shot with 10.9 seconds on the clock.

"Our energy was great," said Raptors head coach Jay Triano, pointing out the 12 steals and countless more deflections among the 22 Bobcats turnovers Toronto forced. "We felt if we were going to get blown-by, at least let's be aggressive and not be positional players and force some turnovers. That's the way we've been playing the past 13 games."

The win extended Toronto's season-high win streak to five and brought it to within a game of .500 at 16-17.

It's hardly the promised land - and Toronto did allow Charlotte to shoot 54 per cent last night - but in the underwater Eastern Conference, it's close enough.

"I want to be above .500," Triano said. But in this conference? "It's a pretty good record."

It only gets harder from here. The Raptors have built their recent run against some weak opposition - Charlotte is now 1-14 on the road and 12-18 overall, for example. Next, the Raptors play the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic - championship aspirants all.

But Toronto can at least take pride in taking care of business during a soft spot in its schedule, sweeping five teams with losing records.

Toronto jumped out to 31-26 first-quarter lead by using its fresh legs to leap into passing lanes, make deflections and run off nine turnovers, with plays like Bosh diving headlong into the first row of seats to save a ball and ignite a fast break leading to a Sonny Weems dunk at the other end for two of Toronto's 17 fast-break points in the period.

The problem was that when Charlotte coach Larry Brown decided to alter his lineup by going small - 6-foot-8 Stephen Jackson played centre for long stretches in the second quarter - the Raptors struggled to contain the dribble.

Raptors misses turned into easy run-outs by Charlotte, which in turn scored 10 fast-break baskets in the second. And when the Bobcats penetrated, Toronto had a hard time rotating to open jump shooters as Charlotte finished the first half shooting 57.5 per cent from the floor and leading 56-55.

The Raptors had to manage the second half without forward Hedo Turkoglu, who left the game with a bruised right knee first suffered in practice on Tuesday. Wright took over his position in the starting lineup, but it was a combination of Bosh and Bargnani up front that allowed Toronto keep its streak alive.

Bosh finished with 33 points and 13 rebounds, as well as an assist on Bargnani's final basket. His Italian frontcourt mate scored 28 points and four rebounds. The Raptors also got a boost from Marco Belinelli, who scored nine in the third quarter (aided by three steals), including a spectacular running three-pointer at the buzzer that gave Toronto an 84-80 lead to start the fourth quarter.

It made for a golden chance for Toronto to avenge one of its most dispiriting losses of the season: A 35-point drubbing on Nov. 25 that was one of the first signs all was not right with the Raptors' ship. But Toronto is now 9-4 in its past 13 games.

"They're playing a lot better," Brown said. "They have three key guys starting [Turkoglu, Jarrett Jack and DeMar DeRozan]who weren't on their team last year. It takes time. But they have a silver bullet in Bosh. They have a team that will get better as the season goes on."

After a shaky middle, they got better as the game went on last night. And for the second time in as many games at home, Toronto maintained it's composure down the stretch of a close match.

Three times down the stretch, the 'Cats were able to drive the lane for scores to put the win in jeopardy, but a little leadership from Bosh, grit from Wright and a big shot by Bargnani put a halt to any such thoughts.

 

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