As head coach Dwane Casey says, it’s time for the Toronto Raptors to prove it “when the popcorn’s popping.”
The NBA team has shown intriguing progress recently – chemistry among the starters, preseason dazzle from DeMar DeRozan, breakout potential from sophomore Jonas Valanciunas, a full training camp from Rudy Gay and a new general manager evaluating astutely, ready to make deals if the team goes sideways.
Now, it’s ready to be tested under the lights.
Wednesday’s season opener at home against the Boston Celtics is the start of a gruelling first month, much as it was last year, when the team started 4-19. It’s time to find out if these Raptors are on course to miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season, or play effectively with the identity Casey envisions: gutty defensive players who outwork whomever they play, regardless of talent.
The Celtics are rebuilding, but the month gets far tougher for the Raptors after, highlighted by two games against the reigning champs from Miami, starting their campaign for the “Three-Heat.”
Toronto will also face Eastern Conference powerhouses Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, along with Western contenders Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. The Raptors will also play squads likely to be their biggest competitors for the last three playoff spots in the East: the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks.
“We’re not going to out-talent anyone or jack up threes over anyone; we’ll have to outscrap and outfight everyone we face,” Casey said after Tuesday’s practice. “The schedule is tough, but I don’t think it’s as brutal as it was last year in the first month, but it’s no joke. We have to be mentally prepared to face adversity and accept the challenge of the first part of the season.”
The coach says he likes the chemistry of this team more than any squad he’s had since taking the Toronto job in June, 2011. The continuity is starting to pay off, particularly among the starting five: Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Valanciunas, DeRozan and Gay.
“I’ve taken a look at it and seen exactly what we have to overcome. And it’s definitely a tough schedule, but we’re capable of being pretty good,” Gay said. “I think we’ve got our identity in practice. We’ll be a hard-working, up-and-down-the-court kind of team.
“We’re athletic and we have the bodies for it – the players for it. We’re going to be one of those teams that are fun to watch.”
New GM Masai Ujiri stopped by the team’s final practice of the preseason Tuesday, observing as he has intently since taking the job in May.
“A lot of the players we had, we just wanted to see what we have and start it off,” Ujiri said. “They put in good work in the summer and they have a lot of energy and passion for the season to start.”
(The GM says the schedule is so difficult, he looked at it once the first day it came out and hasn’t glanced at it again since.)
Ujiri was the 2013 NBA executive of the year with the Denver Nuggets, known to have traded away star Carmelo Anthony and then rebuild in the aftermath, winning a franchise-record 57 games last season.
With the Raptors, he has already traded away 2006 No. 1 overall draft pick Andrea Bargnani, acquiring three players, a first-round pick in 2016 and second-rounders in 2014 and 2017 from the New York Knicks. The GM will wheel and deal if needed, but for now, he’s observing.
“I’ve been so impressed with how ready they have come in and how committed they are,” Ujiri said of his players.
“DeMar in the post, Rudy getting stronger, Valanciunas trying to figure it out, Terrence Ross becoming more consistent – I hope all of those things continue into the regular season,” he added.
WIGGINS ON TV
Canadian basketball star Andrew Wiggins has been a focal of the NBA preseason. Wiggins, a freshman at the University of Kansas, is considered the top-ranked player for next year’s NBA draft. The 18-year-old forward from Vaughan, Ont., is featured on this week’s cover of ESPN The Magazine, as well as a recent edition of Sports Illustrated. He’s billed as a potential franchise player, leading many pundits to popularize the phrase “riggin’ for Wiggins” as teams angle for his services.
TSN is now getting into the act. The all-sports cable network announced Tuesday it would feature every Jayhawks game this season, beginning with a non-conference meeting with the University of Louisiana at Monroe on Nov. 9.
“There are many Canadian basketball fans who can’t wait to watch Andrew and follow the Jayhawks this season,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said in a press release. “When we have played in Canada in the preseason, a lot of KU fans have come to see us play. Now, they can watch all our games on TSN, which will be great exposure for Kansas basketball.”
Globe Staff contributed to this report