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Toronto Raptor Chris Bosh celebrates defeating the San Antonio Spurs after their NBA game in Toronto on Jan. 3, 2010. Bosh became the all-time leading scorer for the franchise in the game. (MARK BLINCH)
Toronto Raptor Chris Bosh celebrates defeating the San Antonio Spurs after their NBA game in Toronto on Jan. 3, 2010. Bosh became the all-time leading scorer for the franchise in the game. (MARK BLINCH)

Raptors on the rise Add to ...

Chris Bosh is quietly optimistic about the Toronto Raptors as they get ready to start the second half of their season.

"I haven't been this encouraged in a while," the seven-year veteran, who leads his NBA team in scoring and rebounds, said after practice yesterday. "Before it's been tough, not winning as many games and kind of leaving things on the table. But this year, we can really start pushing ourselves over .500 and see where we can get at by the end of the season."

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The second half begins tonight the same way the first did - with a date against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Toronto (21-20) will be on the road this time, and will be hard-pressed to duplicate the opening-night upset it recorded against LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and friends.

Cleveland (31-11) started the season 3-3 and are now returning from a five-game Western Conference road swing, during which it went 3-2. In between, the Cavaliers were 25-6 and have the best record in the East, second in the NBA to the Los Angeles Lakers.

But win or lose tonight, the Raptors have a lot to look forward to based on their 10-3 stretch in the past month, and 14-7 mark since the one-quarter pole of the season.

Toronto is in what is shaping up to be a three-way fight with the Miami Heat and Charlotte Bobcats for the fifth seed in the East - which is significant, as the No. 5 team would likely avoid a first-round matchup with the Cavaliers, Boston Celtics or Orlando Magic, considered the three best teams in the conference.

The Raptors have shown an ability to change on the fly under head coach Jay Triano. On pace, at one stage, to be one of the worst-performing defensive teams in NBA history, the Raptors have tightened things up considerably and won converts with a more aggressive, trapping style.

"We're defending a lot better right now," Triano said. "There's a purpose and attitude toward getting stops and we didn't have that earlier in the year. We were thinking more than we were reacting. Now, we're reacting and it's a lot easier for our guys."

In their past 13 games, the Raptors' defensive rating - points allowed per 100 possessions - is 104. Extrapolated over an entire season that mark would make them the eighth-best defensive team in the NBA. Even so, Toronto is currently still last in the NBA with a rating of 112.6 for the season (the NBA average is 106.8), but a big improvement from the abysmal 116.3 it had in mid-December.

Triano said the early season struggles were somewhat predictable. Not only did the team have a lot of new faces, it played its first 30 games in 53 days, leaving almost no time to practice. Now, the Raptors are in a stretch where their next 30 games are in 73 days, and the players are benefiting from the extra practice time and added rest.

Triano's biggest problem is finding playing time for everyone on a healthy roster that can go 10-deep regularly, but that shouldn't be an issue if they continue to have success.

"If you're winning, what can anyone say?" the coach said.

With winning comes a will to sacrifice, which usually begets more winning.

Bosh is on his way to a stellar season, heading to career highs in every significant category and a shoo-in for his fifth consecutive all-star appearance next month. But having led bad teams in the past, he's much more interested in leading a good one, numbers aside.

"My success depends on team success," the 25-year-old forward said. "At this point, numbers don't really mean much. Leading up to all-star weekend, and after, it's about getting wins and making the playoffs and stuff like that."

After tonight's stern test, Toronto then goes to Milwaukee to face the Bucks on the second night of a back-to-back - a situation in which the Raptors have only won once this season.

But thanks to a strong finish to the first half of the season, they can approach their mini road trip with confidence.

"[Before,]we would have a little bit of doubt," Bosh said. "An ounce of doubt is really going to show on the court. Now, we're stepping on the court and we're, 'Okay, we can beat these guys.'

"You have to have that mentality."

TIPSHEET

NOTES The Toronto Raptors won their 2009-10 season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, at the Air Canada Centre, 101-91 on Oct. 28. … Former Raptors guard Anthony Parker has started all 42 games for the Cavs this season, and is averaging 7.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists. … Another former Raptors player, Cavs forward Jamario Moon, is out with an abdominal strain. … Cleveland star LeBron James is shooting 51.1 per cent from the floor and 37.7 per cent from the three-point line - both career-bests. … Raptors guard Marco Belinelli will return after missing two games with flu-like symptoms.

NEXT GAME Tuesday, at Cleveland Cavaliers, 7 p.m. (EST)

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