The Toronto Raptors (25-31) are in a free fall. They are decimated with injuries, they've lost seven games in a row, but yet hold down the seventh playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Fortunately for them, two other playoff hopefuls, Boston and Philadelphia, are also losing ground. The Celtics have also lost seven in a row, and Philly has dropped its last three games. Cleveland and Miami, on the other hand, are gaining ground. The Heat already hold the eighth spot and sit just a half-game behind the Raptors, while the Cavaliers won three of their last four to pull within two games of Miami.
In early December, the Raptors had their best record -- 13-8 -- after a win at Cleveland. Their starting lineup included Vince Carter, Donyell Marshall and rookie Chris Bosh on the front line, and Alvin Williams and Jalen Rose in the backcourt. Lonny Baxter, Morris Peterson, Michael Curry and Jerome Moiso were the reserves. In a previous game against Boston, the Raptors had knocked down 17 of 24 3-pointers in a solid victory.
In Tuesday's 86-74 loss to the Nets, Carter, Williams, Rose and Baxter didn't play because of injuries. Carter, the team's leading scorer (21.2 points per game), may be back by next week from his ankle sprain, but Rose's return from a broken left hand is still listed as indefinite.
The Raptors struggle to score when they have all of their players. They rank last in the NBA in both points scored (84.4) and field-goal percentage (.417). Against New Jersey, they shot 39 percent from the field, fired mostly blanks (3-of-14) from behind the arc and were out-rebounded 45-30.
How can Toronto hold onto its playoff position? The schedule offers a glint of hope. Thirteen of its 25 remaining games are at home, and of its 12 road games, only two are against Western Conference teams (Memphis and Houston). And there's a chance for the Raptors to stop the immediate bleeding with a home-and-home set against Boston.
Although the Raptors have trouble scoring, their defense is quite good. They rank sixth in the NBA in both points allowed (87.0) and field-goal percentage defense (.424). They don't turn the ball over excessively (13.6 times a game), so by defending well and maintaining ball control, the Raptors give themselves a chance to win most games.
Toronto gives a size advantage to just about every opponent. Coach Kevin O'Neill uses Bosh, who's a lean 6-foot-10, and the 6-9 Marshall as his starting bigs, and he backs them up with Baxter, when healthy, Moiso or Michael Bradley. That's not enough size and strength for NBA success on the boards and is the main reason why the Raptors rank 28th in number of rebounds per game.
But, despite all the obstacles, O'Neill must find a way to win enough games for his Raptors to stay in the playoff hunt.
O'Neill demands that his players play with intensity and play unselfishly -- traits that help teams win regardless of who they play. Until his team gets back to full strength, he must get production out of reserve players he plugs into the mix. Both Roger Mason, who scored a career-high 18 points against New Jersey, and Moiso, a front-line scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker, have the potential to help.
And, if and when they get all of their players back, the Raptors must take care of business by beating the teams they are competing with for the final playoff spots. They have six games left to be played with Boston (two), New York (two), Cleveland and Miami. Those are big games. They have five games left against Washington, Chicago (2), Atlanta and Utah -- all of them teams they should beat. They are must wins. Then they have 10 games remaining with plus .500 teams. The Raptors must find a way to steal a few of those.
I have a hunch that 38 wins will get Toronto to the playoffs. That means O'Neill must beg, borrow or steal 13 more wins. That's a daunting challenge for a rookie NBA head coach.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.