Despite their struggles over the last month, the Toronto Raptors no longer have to worry about making the playoffs. They do, however, have some concerns about heading into the postseason in the midst of an extended slump.

Having clinched their second consecutive postseason berth, the Raptors hope to more closely resemble a playoff team on Saturday when they visit the New Jersey Nets, whose own playoff hopes are fading.

After moving eight games over .500 on Feb. 27, Toronto (38-38) has lost 14 of 20 games to fall back to .500. While the Raptors have a long list of things they can blame for their struggles, including a knee injury that kept All-Star forward Chris Bosh out of 10 games in that stretch, coach Sam Mitchell seems most concerned about his club's defense.

"We have stretches when we play good defense, and then we have stretches when we just don't, and you can't do that trying to make the playoffs or going into the playoffs," said Mitchell, whose club is in danger of falling below .500 for the first time since it was 6-7 on Nov. 24.

Those defensive struggles have been particularly noticeable late in Toronto's back-to-back losses. The Raptors have been outscored 78-53 in the fourth quarters - and one overtime - in those two games, including 31-24 in the final period of their 105-100 loss to lowly Charlotte on Friday night.

"The fourth quarter is killing us. We're not closing out games,'' Raptors point guard T.J. Ford said. "We just got to be more focused down the stretch, and we just got to find a way to get a win."

It has been just as hard for the Nets (31-45) to get victories lately, and they don't have a strong start to fall back on. New Jersey has lost four straight and 13 of 18 since the beginning of March to drop four games behind eighth-place Atlanta in the Eastern Conference playoff race with six games remaining.

Making up that ground could be especially challenging if Vince Carter remains sidelined. Carter, the team's second-leading scorer at 21.5 points per game, missed New Jersey's 106-87 loss to Detroit on Friday night because of an ankle injury.

Carter had been playing some of his best basketball of the season before the injury, averaging 28.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists in his last 10 games. He's day-to-day.

"We just need to keep fighting and playing hard, even without Vince," said Richard Jefferson, who led the Nets with 15 points Friday. "I didn't get to this point by giving up as soon as things turn bad or don't go good. We need to keep playing hard and keep hoping for the best."

The Nets have lost their first two games against the Raptors this season after eliminating them from the first round of the playoffs last spring. Jefferson has led the Nets with 21.0 points per game, while Bosh has averaged 21.0 points and shot 68.4 percent (13-for-19) from the field.

These Atlantic Division rivals close the season series in Toronto on Friday.


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