Basketball

Raptors off to England

The Toronto Raptors face the New Jersey Nets in a pair of games Friday and Saturday at the 02 Arena in London, the NBA's first-ever regular-season games staged in Europe.

Long flights and hotel rooms are a part of life for professional basketball players, but Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano expects this weekend's road trip to provide an experience his team won't soon forget.

The Raptors face the New Jersey Nets in a pair of games Friday and Saturday at the 02 Arena in London, the NBA's first-ever regular-season games staged in Europe.

"There's 82 games in a season and I would think at the end of most of our players' careers, the two that they play in London might be the two they remember more than anything else, so it's a great opportunity for them," Triano said.

The games, which will be played at the basketball venue for the 2012 London Olympics, are part of the NBA's continuing bid to spread the sport's popularity globally.

The travelling party of 140 players, staff, sponsors and some season-ticket holders departed Tuesday night for London, where they'll hold basketball clinics, among other league obligations, before Friday's tipoff. There's also a team photo planned at Tower Bridge, which stretches across the River Thames.

"A lot of our young guys are from [Europe] but a lot of our young players have never been outside North America before, and it's a great opportunity for them," Triano said.

Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan are among the Raptors who had never travelled overseas.

"This is going to be my first time experiencing it, I said I was going to come back speaking British, so look out for that," Johnson said, laughing.

The games between two teams currently out of the playoff race aren't exactly marquee matchups. The Raptors are 17-44 and 13th in the Eastern Conference, beating New Orleans 96-90 on Tuesday for just their fourth win in their last 24 games. The Nets are a half-game ahead of Toronto at 17-43, and mired in a six-game losing skid.

Triano had initially called the long trip an annoyance, saying it could adversely affect what's already been a season of struggles.

"Dealing with the [five-hour] time change and the different culture and an arena that we haven't seen before. . . the Nets are in the same boat, but there are 28 others that aren't," Triano said.

But the coach was singing a different tune Tuesday night, hours before the team bus departed for the airport.

"There's not much difference between the flight from Toronto to London than the flight from Toronto to Los Angeles when we have the west coast trip," Triano said.

It helps, the coach added, that the trip is sandwiched between two stretches of games at home.

Both teams have been part of league trips off the continent before. The Nets played the Houston Rockets in two games this past pre-season in China after a stopover in Moscow for a basketball clinic. The Raptors held their 2007 pre-season training camp in Italy and Spain.

The Raptors have fielded one of the most internationally diverse rosters in recent years. This year's lineup includes Italian centre Andrea Bargnani, Spanish point guard Jose Calderon, plus Brazilian Leandro Barbosa, Lithuanian Linas Kleiza, and Frenchman Alexis Ajinca.

"I think it's exciting, it's nice to go to Europe, it's a little bit closer to home so it's going to be fun, building a little bit more chemistry, being in a different country," Calderon said. "I think it's going to be fun with some of the guys who've never  been there."

The Spaniard said he'll have a large contingent of friends and family members at the games.

"It's an hour and 30 minutes from Madrid, so it's easier to go there than to Toronto for some of them," Calderon said. "It's a work trip as well, it's exciting but we're going there to win two games, we're not just going there to see the big sights."