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Toronto suddenly finds itself on the rise

WP: Colangelo has made all the right moves for first-place Raptors
Raptors Bulls Basketball
Chris Bosh and the Toronto Raptors are on a roll.Nam Y. Huh / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Bryan Colangelo, president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors, certainly had a moment of trepidation and self-doubt last February after deserting the championship-caliber team he had assembled in Phoenix to lead a hapless franchise in an obscure NBA locale north of the border. The team hadn't been to the playoffs since 2002 and, no matter how chic and cosmopolitan the city was, it had become a place where most players didn't want to be or had hoped to avoid.

"It was perhaps a little bit risky, perhaps to some a little bit crazy," Colangelo said, "but it was the right move for me."

Chris Bosh understandably could've second-guessed himself when — only a few months after he signed a three-year contract extension to become the cornerstone of the organization — the Raptors started this season with two victories in their first 10 games. "No, you never do that," Bosh said. "I never, ever, once thought, 'What did I get myself into?' I always thought more, 'I'm going to make this thing work.' "

Few can question their decisions now that Colangelo, a risk-taking general manager, and Bosh, an all-star power forward whose laid-back personality belies his confidence, have elevated the Raptors (29-24) into first place in the otherwise mediocre Atlantic Division. The Raptors have won 10 of their last 12 games and are the league's most surprising team in the season's first half, having already surpassed last season's win total.

"Where we are right now is not totally surprising to us internally. We thought we would be much better," Colangelo said. "The most surprising thing is, we're in first place and Jersey is not."

When Colangelo arrived in Toronto, Bosh was the only discernible building block, but wholesale changes had to wait because Colangelo joined the team after the trade deadline. After spending the remaining part of the season evaluating the team, Colangelo decided to completely remake the roster, bringing in nine new faces this season. He drafted Italian forward Andrea Bargnani with the No. 1 pick, traded all-rookie forward Charlie Villanueva for point guard T.J. Ford and acquired center Rasho Nesterovic. He also scoured the Euroleague to sign Spanish center Jorge Garbajosa and swingman Anthony Parker in free agency. But Colangelo said those moves wouldn't have meant much had he been unable to retain Bosh.

"Of all the things that we've done, that was the single biggest jump forward for this organization because it established that Toronto can retain its top players," Colangelo said.

Humble and soft-spoken with a slow, syrupy drawl, Bosh doesn't receive the hype of his 2003 draft counterparts LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, but the versatile, 6-foot-10 lefty wanted the same opportunity they had to lead his own team. "I think everybody does," Bosh said. "That was my main reason for signing. You have so many guys in this league, so many players and not everybody is that primary guy. I had that opportunity here, you know. I wanted to stick with it, take the challenge and see where it takes me."

Bosh, a member of the U.S. men's national team, is averaging career highs in scoring (23.3) and rebounding (10.8), and the fans elected him to the all-star team for the first time in his career. Only a year ago, the Eastern Conference coaches selected Bosh for the all-star game, and upon arriving at an airport in Houston for the festivities, the Texas native collected his own luggage at baggage claim with no fanfare. "It's like a dream or something. It still doesn't seem real," Bosh said.

Perhaps the most surprising move the 41-year-old Colangelo made was the one he didn't make — sticking with Raptors Coach Sam Mitchell, who is in the last year of his contract. Colangelo said he won't publicly discuss Mitchell's future with the organization, but has been pleased with the job he has done. "Rather than to come in and make a change just to make a change and bring in my so-called 'guy,' I said Sam deserves a chance to succeed or fail with the group we helped put together and so far, things are moving in the right direction," Colangelo said.

Colangelo wanted to remake the Raptors in the image of the high-scoring, fast-breaking Suns. But Toronto's running game lasted about two weeks before Mitchell realized that the team performed better when it ran set plays and, in order to run, it needed to take better shots. "We were running and shooting threes, when we should've been running and shooting 15-footers," Mitchell said.

Once the Raptors found comfort in the offense and with each other, the confidence of its players increased as well. When Bosh went down with a left knee injury, the Raptors didn't sink, as Ford took the reins of the team and became a reliable scoring option. Bargnani got over trying to prove the validity of his draft status and has become a solid contributor. Toronto also has been able to get production from Morris Peterson, the longest-tenured Raptor, and backup point guard Jose Calderon kept the team rolling when Ford went down with an ankle injury.

"There is not one guy, outside of Chris Bosh, that you expected to perform at this level. Everybody else is emerging or blossoming. It's all seemingly coming together," Colangelo said.

With Philadelphia and Boston pretty much out of contention, and New York and New Jersey unable to find much consistency, the Raptors could win a division title for the first time in their 12-year history. Ford, however, said the Raptors aren't satisfied and feel the same as they did when they started the season 2-8: "We have that attitude that we have to get better. We feel like we can definitely fight for having the best record in the East. Not too far behind."

Colangelo isn't looking back. "I decided to move in a certain direction and hopefully, in five years, the people in Toronto won't be sorry for it and I won't be sorry for it, either," he said.