By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - The snow has just started to fall in the National Basketball Association's most northern outpost and all signs are pointing to a long, bitter winter for the Toronto Raptors.
A 94-88 loss to the Brooklyn Nets sent the nose-diving Raptors to their sixth straight defeat and 12th in 13 games on Wednesday, not the type of results that will have Christmas shoppers rushing out to snap up tickets as stocking stuffers.
With the locked-out Toronto Maple Leafs walking the National Hockey League picket line, the Raptors have the city's sports stage to themselves, but have failed to seize the spotlight.
The young Raptors were assured a bumpy start to the season, with 15 of their opening 22 games on the road, but returned to the Air Canada Centre after a jarring 0-5 road trip that included a calling out from under-fire general manager Bryan Colangelo, who labeled the team's performance "embarrassing".
The reeling Raptors will play 11 of their next 15 at home, a stretch that will determine whether Toronto battle for a playoff spot, as tipped before the season, or a lottery pick.
"I thought the guys competed, they played the game the right way," Raptors coach Dwane Casey told reporters, searching for positives from another loss.
"I was really proud the way the guys came out and competed but there are no consolation prizes in the NBA."
The Raptors could not have picked a better opponent to kick off their home stand in the weary Nets, who arrived in Toronto mired in their own season-high five-game tailspin, having played back-to-back nights and coming off a heartbreaking loss to the New York Knicks.
But the Raptors have problems of their own, including a long injury list that includes power forward Andrea Bargnani (ligament tear, right elbow), guard Kyle Lowry (partial tear, right triceps) and Linas Klezia (right knee) while Amir Johnson sat out the contest serving a one-game suspension for throwing his mouth guard at an official.
As the Raptors slide continues eyes are turning towards Colangelo, a general manager with an itchy trigger finger who has seldom displayed the patience for a slow rebuild.
Bargnani, the Raptors underachieving power forward, has exasperated coaches, fans and team mates since Toronto made him the number one overall pick in the 2006 draft, and may have finally worn out his welcome.
The enigmatic Italian has been the subject of trade speculation, including a swap with the Lakers that would see Bargnani shipped to Los Angeles along with guard Jose Calderon and Kleiza, for centre Pau Gasol.
With just nine players on the bench, the under-manned Raptors produced a gritty effort and took a 45-37 lead into the intermission but were worn down in the second half as Brooklyn pulled away and coasted to a comfortable win.
"We had our heads down a little bit after last night's loss," said Nets coach Avery Johnson. "Those game's are not the easiest to come back from.
"That's no excuse, that's just the reality, especially when you go on the road."
Former Raptor Joe Johnson led the Nets with 23 points while Ed Davis, who will be counted to carry the load in Bargnani's absence, had a game-high 24 points and 12 rebound for the Raptors.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)