It was early Sunday morning and already many of the slot machines within the darkened facade of Casino Rama were being put to use as the Toronto Raptors began to set up shop in the nearby basketball court.
The Raptors had stayed overnight at the gambling and entertainment venue north of Toronto and were preparing to conclude their training camp with an inter-squad game.
It somehow seemed a fitting backdrop for a National Basketball Association outfit that is hoping to be able to beat the odds this season and make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
Not everybody is convinced that the Raptors, 23-43 a year ago during the lockout-shortened season, have improved enough to be a player this year in the Eastern Conference.
Certainly not John Hollinger, the well-respected NBA basketball analyst at ESPN who predicted last week that the Raptors would not win more than 33 games this coming year.
“That right there tells you … how much lack of respect the league has for us,” said Dwane Casey, who is embarking on his second season as Toronto’s head coach.
The Raptors will begin the regular season on Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers at the Air Canada Centre.
Still, even Casey appears to be hedging his bets when asked during a recent interview if the Raptors can make the postseason.
“You always should be competing for the playoffs,” he said. “Can we say we’re one of the [eight] teams? No, I can’t say that right now.
“I’ll let you know after a while because we’re still growing, we’re not past that building stage.”
Raptor president and general manager Bryan Colangelo was asked in an e-mail if anything less than playoff appearance for the Raptors this year would be deemed a disappointment.
“I have openly stated we want to compete for a playoff spot this season, and I have always maintained that not making the playoffs any given year would be a huge disappointment for me personally,” Colangelo wrote.
“In reality, however, we cannot force the timing of this building process. Only time will tell, but I do feel we are making forward progress.”
The Raptors head into the season with a revamped lineup and renewed sense of optimism, much of it fuelled by a 6-1 preseason record.
When you consider that the Los Angeles Lakers went 0-8 after the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, it tells you how reliable a measuring stick these games really can be.
The Raptors this season will finally welcome seven-footer Jonas Valanciunas into the fold. The 20-year-old has been honing his skills over in Europe since the Raptors made the centre their No. 1 pick (fifth overall) in the 2011 draft.
Valanciunas is like Andrea Bargnani, Toronto’s other seven-footer, only with grit. He runs the floor very well, has a deft scoring touch and doesn’t mind mixing it up under the boards.
Valanciunas will start at centre and his presence will allow Bargnani to slot back into his comfort zone at power forward.
“I do think Jonas can turn out to be a perfect complement in that he does not necessarily need to ball to be effective,” Colangelo said. “Andrea will surely benefit from having an active, long and energetic 5 next to him on the court.”
Two other new additions to the starting five will be Kyle Lowry, who was obtained in a trade from the Houston Rockets, and Landry Fields, who signed as a free agent.
Lowry, Colangelo’s Plan B after he failed to lure Nash to town, will supplant veteran Jose Calderon as the starting point guard. He will provide the Raptors with improved defence, not to mention a solid offensive punch.
Fields is a swingman who will start at shooting guard and hopefully will give Toronto a dependable three-point shooting option.
The Raptors ranked 19th overall in the NBA last season, connecting on 34 per cent of their three-point offerings.
Casey said the offence should be much improved this season and not have to rely so heavily on Bargnani and small forward DeMar DeRozan to put points up on the board.
The major worry for Casey heading into the year has been the lacklustre performance by the defence, which is surprising given the huge strides the club made in this area last season.
The coach is especially concerned by the lack of defensive attention at the start of games during the preseason, where the Raptors have allowed an average of 29 first-quarter points.
Casey said the pains of breaking in three new starters to his team’s defensive schemes might have something to do with it, but he is beginning to lose patience.
“We’ve got to come out with our pants on fire and with some type of oomph when we come out of the locker room,” he said. “And if we don’t teams are just going to jump on us and put their foot on us and put us away early.”
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