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Raptors offer a glimmer of hope for Toronto sports fans

It's difficult to call it a buzz. More likely it's a warm and fuzzy feeling in these parts brought on by the sudden realization that it is maybe, possibly, okay to be a Toronto sports fan with more than merely limited expectations.

Pitchers and catchers report in five weeks or so, and the reworked Toronto Blue Jays are starting to bring players in town as they rev up their winter caravan. Hopes for a playoff spot likely haven't been this high since 1993.

For those who enjoy their football of the three-down variety, the Argonauts hold the Grey Cup – having won it on home field – and that's about as good as it gets in the CFL, no?

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And on Sunday afternoon, an announced crowd of 17,743 showed up at the Air Canada Centre to see a toxic combination of talent differential and the NBA's usual "let's give the superstars the benefit of the doubt" method of officiating manifest itself in the Toronto Raptors' 104-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are pretty much the best entertainment there is in professional sports right now.

Nobody's fitting the Raptors for championship rings yet, but a season that threatened to turn farcical has, after a 4-19 start, turned into something watchable. If nothing else, the countdown to Andrea Bargnani's exit from the city has begun. Get healthy soon, big fella.

Sportsnet's John Shannon revealed Friday that at a meeting of the board of directors of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was told by, among others, George Cope, chief executive officer of BCE-Bell Canada and a former hoops player at Western University, to simply play whom he wanted to play. Figuring out the internal politics of MLSE is a fool's game, but if it's a sign that general manager Bryan Colangelo, and not Casey, will take the fall for another playoff miss, it is a positive development.

So, here's a note to Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are now apparently a few scratches of a few lawyers' pens away from returning to the ice: Try not to screw this up, okay? Because while nobody's cancelled his season tickets in this city, my guess is a lousy start by the postlockout Leafs will result in one of the ugliest manifestations of fan discontent we've seen in quite some time. The lockout is not the players' fault, of course; ownership forced it and controlled the pace of negotiations as it always does. But it's easier to boo Dion Phaneuf or Joffrey Lupul than some guy in a suit, no?

The Leafs no longer have the city, (let alone the ACC) to themselves, but the 12-22 Raptors, to their credit, hung with the 26-7 Thunder for the first half before, in the words of Casey, "reality set in." The Thunder raised their defensive game in the second half – "that's how we win, that's how we play and that's how we score, off our defence," Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said – while Russell Westbrook scored 12 third-quarter points.

"I praised our guys for the way we played," Casey said. "But again, there are so many things that we can do better as far as the mental part of the game – executing, not letting the ball stick when the defensive pressure ratchets up a little bit."

The Raptors, who were led by Alan Anderson's 27 points off the bench, have now lost two consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 10-12 after Friday's 105-96 loss to the Sacramento Kings.

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It was the loss to the Kings that was still on the mind of the Raptors' Amir Johnson, who needed less than 10 minutes of playing time on that night to foul out. If the Raptors had played in that game with the effort they showed against the Thunder, he said, they would have beaten the Kings. Johnson was right, and not simply searching for a silver lining is all to the good.

Things feel good around here right now. So, by all means drop the puck, but do so with fingers crossed.

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