Hedo Turkoglu came out of the Toronto Raptors practice facility, saw a gaggle of reporters, and immediately began feigning an exaggerated limp with his left ankle.
Injuries are no joke for the team these days, with the Raptors having lost four in a row, most recently a blowout by the Rockets in Houston. In that game, they were missing not only Turkoglu, who sprained his ankle and missed the second half, but Chris Bosh, who missed his sixth consecutive game, and Jose Calderon, who was out because of a puncture wound on his elbow.
But there are signs the worst may be over, and not just because Turkoglu's injury is mild and he's hopeful about playing tomorrow night when the Raptors (31-28) play host to the New York Knicks (20-39), or because the illness that prompted Andrea Bargnani to miss practice isn't considered serious enough to keep him out of the lineup against the Knicks. Calderon and, more importantly, Bosh are also expected back.
Bosh, who had been out with a sprained ankle, practised at full speed yesterday and pronounced himself fit and ready to resume playing the best basketball of his career. "It will help a lot," Turkoglu said of having Bosh back. "He's been carrying the load at both ends of the court for the entire year. We miss him a lot. Those games, we try to step up to take his role, but he's been a major part of our success.
"Every great player on the court makes your job easier," Turkoglu said. "He's been dominant and when you have that kind of guy next to you, you have better shots, better looks, because they're not going to leave him."
Getting players back is one thing. But head coach Jay Triano and Bosh said the Raptors must also regain a recognition that the season is officially in the homestretch, with every hiccup compounded.
"What, we have 23 games left? You lose two games, three games in a row and you're on the outside looking in," Bosh said. "This is our situation, we knew it was going to happen and it'd be a photo-finish at the end. This is the part of the season I've been waiting for."
Triano is hoping that having his leading scorer and rebounder back will solve his team's woes at both ends of the floor. Offensively, a scrambled, one-on-one attack in Bosh's absence yielded low-percentage shots, long rebounds and turnovers. Defensively, the Raptors allowed opponents to shoot 51 per cent from the floor over the past four games, a percentage inflated by too many easy transition chances.
"Teams shot about 95 per cent on open layups," said Triano, who worked with his team for nearly three hours. "In the half-court we're pretty good, but second-chance points and transition points are going to kill you."
The Raptors swoon has come at a bad time. As recently as two weeks ago, there was some thought the team could make a run at fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, given the struggles of the Boston Celtics ahead of them. But after losing four in a row, the Raptors are more concerned about who's behind them. Toronto remains in fifth but was suddenly just a half-game up on the Chicago Bulls before play last night, and just 21/2 games ahead of the Charlotte Bobcats in ninth.
Throw in a four-game Western trip after home games tomorrow and Sunday, and the Raptors' playoff chances don't look as solid as they once did.
Turkoglu isn't about to panic. His ankle's not too bad; Bosh is back. The worst is behind them. "Everyone realizes what we've done wrong the last four games," Turkoglu said. "I didn't practice but I saw the guy and there was a different atmosphere. People realize what we have to do to be successful. We have to play together, play hard, play both ends of the court.
"Hopefully me, Jose, Chris, all our hurt guys will be back and we'll do what we were doing before."
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