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Sailing along in Atlantic

Colangelo's Raptors steer toward playoffs

Bryan Colangelo was on the phone last Wednesday. It was the first anniversary of the announcement that he had been hired as president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors.

"It feels like it's been a week and a half," he said. "There has been so much going on in such a short period of time."

Colangelo already has one Executive of the Year award (2005 in Phoenix) and he could be in for another after what he has wrought north of the border. The Raptors are in -- gulp -- first place and on a pace to capture the Atlantic Division with -- gulp -- a winning record. (That sound you just heard was the Norton Anti-Virus activating.)

Part of the Raptors' good fortune is that they play in the league's flophouse. Two of the five tenants, the Celtics and Sixers, are competing for the No. 1 pick in the draft (which Toronto won last year). Another, the Knicks, are trying to make 35 wins seem like a turnaround/breakthrough season despite a payroll that would make Bill Gates blush. And everyone's preseason favorite to win the division, the Nets, have been decimated by injuries.

Colangelo totally revamped the Raptors. He defied convention by trading big for small (Charlie Villanueva for the desperately needed T.J. Ford). He pried Rasho Nesterovic from the Spurs to address a need at center (after somehow persuading the Utah Jazz to take first-round bust Rafael Araujo). He defied convention by making Andrea Bargnani the first European to be the No. 1 overall pick.

"I had seen him two years before and I told his agent at that time that when he came out, he would be the No. 1 pick," said Colangelo. "I was sold on him the first time I laid eyes on him." He went after free agents (Jorge Garbajosa, Anthony Parker) who were playing overseas.

The Raptors set making the playoffs as a goal when the season started -- remember, they won 27 games last season -- and, barring a spring swoon, they should get there for the first time in five years. Their coach, Sam Mitchell, is a strong contender for Coach of the Year (he's Charles Barkley's choice), and Bargnani will get consideration for Rookie of the Year. Chris Bosh became only the third All-Star in franchise history (Vince Carter and Antonio Davis were the others). Colangelo already has shown that he isn't so enamored with his signees; he dealt free agent Fred Jones, signed last summer, to Portland for Juan Dixon.

It has been a whirlwind for Colangelo, who had been a fixture (along with his dad, Jerry) in Phoenix pretty much all his life. Prior to arriving in Toronto, he had spent the previous decade and a half with the Suns, the last 11 as general manager.

"It was hard to leave Phoenix," he said. "There's the weather, the fans, the connection to the Phoenix Suns brand, which I had had my whole life. Any kind of change after that is going to be hard. But this was the right situation. It has proven to be an unbelievable opportunity, both personally and professionally."

Another hard part of the move: leaving his dad.

"The most intriguing thing to me since I've been here is that he was always there when I looked over my shoulder if I needed to ask him a question," Colangelo said. "I had to come to grips with that, that he wasn't there. But I had Wayne Embry here and that was a big plus. And with what had happened in Phoenix with the sale of the team, I knew it wasn't going to last forever with Jerry."

The Raptors survived some predictable early-season setbacks, with the revamping of the roster and a brutal early schedule (18 of their first 28 on the road, including two West Coast trips). Their victory last Wednesday at Houston represents their last Western Conference roadie. Twelve of their remaining 22 games are in the Air Canada Centre. Six of the 22 are against the lowlifes of the Atlantic, including three games with the Knicks and two against the Sixers. (The other is at Boston March 26.) They're ready.

"I wouldn't be here if I thought it was a dead-end street. It's not," Colangelo said. "When I was doing my due diligence, everyone told me I would love Toronto. I talked to players, agents, the media."

(The media? What was he thinking?)

"Yes, it's a hockey city and the strength of the Maple Leafs carried the Raptors for the last several years. But I think we're ready to turn the page. It's the right time to take a great leap forward."

Grateful to have known him

As of Friday afternoon, there were an astounding 90-plus pages in the Dennis Johnson guest book on the Globe's website.

There were tributes from people who never knew DJ, from people who had chance encounters with him in a parking lot or at a store, and from those who knew him in his adolescent years on the playgrounds of Compton, Calif.

One of those is Keith Bernard of Long Beach, who wrote, "From the halls of Roosevelt Junior High School and Dominguez Senior High in Compton, a young, freckled-faced kid played basketball with his friends on the playgrounds. I was one of them."

Pat Craft of Bellflower, Calif., wrote, "You were always the greatest defender I ever played against as we were growing up."

Then there was one from a former high school teammate who went on to enjoy success in another sport: "I was surprised and saddened when I heard the news about my friend and basketball teammate at Dominguez when we were there. My heart goes out to the entire Johnson family. Dennis will be deeply missed and remembered. God bless."

The writer was Ken Landreaux, who had a decent professional baseball career and now lives in La Puente, Calif.

Former Celtic teammate Bill Walton, meanwhile, resorted to a line from his favorite band, the Grateful Dead, for a tribute on an ESPN.com chat: "Fare thee well, my only true one." Deadheads will recognize the line from the song "Brokedown Palace" (although the Dead sing, "fare you well").

Johnson's funeral was Friday in California. It's still impossible to believe he's gone.

Houston has had a problem

The Celtics missed both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady in Houston last Monday. That's only the second time this season that both Rockets mainstays were hors de combat; not surprisingly, Houston is 0-2 in those games.

The Rockets will be in Boston Wednesday for a rematch, and there's a chance both Yao and T-Mac will be playing. T-Mac missed last week's game with what the team said were "flulike symptoms," so he is a go as of now. It was the ninth game he has missed this season, and Houston is 2-7 without him.

Yao started practicing last Thursday with an eye toward a return ASAP; he went down during a Dec. 23 game against the Clippers. The Rockets had won 20 of the 31 games Yao missed entering last night.

Over All-Star weekend, McGrady predicted big things for the Rockets once Yao returned.

"People counted us out when Yao went down," he said. "When he comes back, and if he is playing like he did before he got hurt, I like our chances."

Yao has to wear a brace on his right knee, which he does not like, and he said his conditioning is not where it should be. (How could it when you've missed two months?)

The Celtics, by the way, became the first Eastern Conference team to win this season in the Toyota Center, something that eight previous Eastern teams could not do.

Then, two nights later, with McGrady back, the Rockets dropped another to an Eastern Conference team when the Raptors drubbed them by 16 points. Detroit, New Jersey, Indiana, Milwaukee, and Orlando are the Eastern Conference teams yet to visit Houston this season.

Etc.

Mistaken identity
One of the interesting byproducts of Cedric Maxwell's unfortunate comments last week regarding referee Violet Palmer was what came after. Some blogger on aol.com wrote: "For the young 'uns in the audience, here's a quick history lesson: In the 1980s, when the Boston Celtics ruled the East, Cedric Maxwell was an essential reserve on the championship teams. His greatest skill was waving a towel incessantly on the sidelines. Boston Garden loved his chi. Occasionally, he would rip off the sweats and fill the lanes on the fast break for a few minutes, but mostly, he was a reserve." M.L. Carr immediately called for a chance to rebut. Additionally, when Channel 7 aired a graphic of Maxwell last Wednesday, the man pictured on the TV screen sure looked a lot like Robert Parish.

Worst-case scenario
Here's something for Knicks honcho James Dolan to consider when he evaluates Isiah Thomas and the team after the season: How can he keep Thomas when the Knicks lost three times to the worst team in the conference? And twice at home? The Knicks are responsible for nearly 20 percent of the Celtics' victory total.

Home Improvement
Here's what one NBA scout/personnel evaluator had to say about Al Jefferson: "I can't think of one player in this league who has improved more than he has over the course of the season. Most guys improve over the summer and come back better. He has done it during the season. That is amazing to me." It's time to put Big Al's name in there (with Kevin Martin, Leandro Barbosa, Deron Williams, David Lee, Monta Ellis) as a candidate for Most Improved Player. Big Al averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in 18 minutes a game last season. After yesterday's game against the Nets (32 points, 18 rebounds), he is averaging 14.8 points and 11.1 rebounds in 32.7 minutes. It might hurt his chances that he plays for a team with such a poor record. But he should be in the discussion.

Costly free throws
We noted in a recent column that LeBron James's free throw shooting was becoming a concern for him and his team. Well, he boinged two big ones against the Mavericks Thursday night in a tight game, and the folks at Elias note that James is shooting a Montrossian 58.7 percent in the final five minutes of games (or in overtime) when the lead is 4 points or less. He's shooting a not-so-great 68.4 percent in other situations. Cleveland entered yesterday as the worst free throw shooting team in the league, with rotation regulars James, Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones, Anderson Varejao, and Eric Snow all at less than 70 percent. Prior to this season, all of the above gents save for Varejao had career averages well above 70 percent.

Low points
Nets general manager Rod Thorn recently had this to say about Mikki Moore, who quietly is playing pretty well: "He starts the game with 10 points because of [Jason ] Kidd and [Vince ] Carter. So does [Nenad ] Krstic." What about Jason Collins? Does he start the game with 10 points, too? "That's another story," Thorn laughed. Collins's offensive anemia has almost been a source of amusement for the Nets. Never one to be mistaken for Moses Malone, Collins nonetheless entered this season with a career average of 5.6 points. He's down to a career-low 2.4. Maybe it's because he takes one shot for every 11 minutes he's on the floor and averages only 23.6 minutes a game. But in last Wednesday's victory over the Wizards, Collins played 31 minutes without taking a shot. According to Elias, the last time a starting center played 30 minutes without attempting a shot came during the 1994-95 season, when old friend Lorenzo Williams did it while toiling for the Dallas Mavericks.

Guide to Europe
So who is out there after Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, assuming the two fab freshmen declare for the NBA this year? Is there a Eurostar who will make a late rally, as Pau Gasol did in 2001? (Pau's brother, Marc, turns 22 this year and is eligible to be taken in this draft.) According to one NBA executive, here are the Europeans likely to draw the most interest in the draft: Tiago Splitter, Rudy Fernandez, Marco Belinelli, and Danilo Gallinari. Splitter (who actually is from Brazil) and Fernandez are both playing in Spain and have declared for previous drafts before withdrawing. Fernandez was a key guy for the Spanish National Team when it won the recent World Championships in Japan. Belinelli and Gallinari are playing in Italy. Belinelli led the Italians in scoring at the Worlds. Another name to keep an eye on is Nicolas Batum, now playing in France for LeMans. Of those five, Splitter, a 6-foot-11-inch forward/center, and Fernandez, a 6-6 swingman, are draft-eligible because they turn 22 this year. The 6-5 Belinelli turns 21 while Gallinari, a 6-8 forward, turns 19. They would have to declare for the draft to be selected, as would the 6-7 Batum, who also turns 19 this year.

Peter May's e-mail address is p_may@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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