Doug Smith, Toronto Star

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.– There was a time when Sam Mitchell thought he’d tweak his starting five every now and then to find matchups he thought benefited the Raptors. Rasho Nesterovic changed all that. The veteran centre’s play of late – at both ends of the court – has given Mitchell no reason to make any changes to a starting group that includes point guard T.J. Ford, guard Anthony Parker and forwards Jorge Garbajosa and Chris Bosh. “It would just be tough to take him out,” Mitchell said of Nesterovic. “He’s given us more offensively than what we expected but it’s his defence and his rebounding, presence on the court. He just knows how to play.”

With everyone back from various injuries and Garbajosa seemingly over a flu bug that kept him out of Monday’s practice, Mitchell is sending out his now-constant starting five against the New Jersey Nets tonight with first place in the Atlantic Division on the line. Nesterovic contribution comes in deflections, one-on-one defence and weakside help defence rather than in any usual statistical category. He does nothing flashy but everything consistently. “I played with Rasho (in Minnesota) so I knew he knew how to play and what a pro he was but coaching him now, you come to appreciate what it is to be a professional in this league,” said Mitchell. Mitchell had originally thought his only constant starters would be Ford, Bosh and Parker. But Garbajosa’s ability to guard small forwards who might be smaller and quicker and Nesterovic’s solid play all around have changed that idea. It’s given the coach a chance to also develop a consistent rotation which, if the last two games indicate anything, will include Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, Joey Graham and Morris Peterson off the bench. “If I didn’t do it against Phoenix (remove Nesterovic to avoid a matchup with Amare Stoudemire), which would have been the game to do it, it’s tough to do it against anybody in the East,” said the coach.