SPORTS

Toronto Raptors open camp hoping to pick up where they left off last season

09/29/2014 05:15 EDT | Updated 11/29/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - The agonizing image of Kyle Lowry's blocked shot at the Game 7 buzzer has played itself over and over in the Raptors' minds all summer, like a bad song stuck on repeat.

The point guard who'd carried Toronto through their first playoff appearance in six years was blocked by Paul Pierce at the buzzer, ending their season as the Brooklyn Nets moved onto the second round.

Rather that bury that heartbreaking image, the Raptors have harnessed it.

"I think about it all the time because we're going to need that to feed off of, honestly, and understand how bad that hurt, that feeling of losing Game 7 and coming so close, losing by one point," said guard DeMar DeRozan. "We've got to carry that starting tomorrow for training camp, have that hunger and that edge to do the same thing all over again this year."

The Raptors held their traditional season-opening media day on Monday and talked about picking up where they left off. Toronto went a club-record 48-34 last season to win the Atlantic Division title before being eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs.

The sting of that loss lingered long for all of them. Patrick Patterson estimated it probably took him a month and a half to get over it.

"Just people back home talking about it, friends talking about it, family talking about it, still seeing it in the media," he said. "I felt like we should've won it. We should've advanced, but unfortunately it didn't go our way. It was definitely a tough loss, a bad taste in my mouth. It took a while for me to get over it."

DeRozan wouldn't watch the Nets play the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs.

"I probably watched the first game and I couldn't even watch anymore, honestly, because I knew we could've been there. And it sucks. I'm (at home) in L.A. and they're in Miami playing against a team we should've been playing against," DeRozan said. "It was tough. It was tough. That whole time, I couldn't wait for (the Nets) to lose, honestly, just to feel better about myself."

Five months later, the Raptors are eager to get going. They open the pre-season Sunday in Vancouver against the Sacramento Kings.

Monday's media day came the morning after they went bowling, a team bonding exercise. Chuck Hayes claimed to have bowled a team-high score of 136.

There was a palpable difference, said DeRozan, from media days past.

"Hell, yeah," said the all-star guard. "Just the energy and the positivity of everything, and not the 'What ifs' so much. It definitely do feel different."

The positive vibe comes not just as a carry-over from the Raptors' thrilling playoff run, but also in the fact that the club retained its core — starting with Lowry, who signed a multi-year deal with Toronto in the off-season.

"We feel continuity is big for us. Consistency is really big for winning teams," said GM Masai Ujiri. "That formula has proven to work. We hope that it works for us. These guys, they like each other. We have a chemistry. They compete. They go out there and play for each other. We're not a selfish team. The young guys continue to grow and the platform continues to be there — I think that's very important for us."

Key off-season additions include nine-year NBA veteran Lou Williams and James Johnson, who starts a second stint with the Raptors.

Lowry said with last year's record-breaking campaign comes loftier expectations for this season. He gladly shoulders his share of responsibility.

"Just knowing from the jump it's a lot of pressure on me, which you expect, which you want, which I want," Lowry said. "Every day I have to be mentally prepared and physically prepared to be the best player I can be. Even if I'm not doing my best, I have to make sure my teammates, pump them up to do their best.

"Last year we were trying to figure out how to win games, now we have to know how to win games. Know for a fact how to win games that are closer games."

The 28-year-old was finally able to enjoy an off-season without injuries, and Ujiri marvelled at the "unbelievable shape" his star point guard is in. Rather than rest on his new contract, Lowry worked harder.

"The worst thing is getting yourself out of shape and trying to get back in shape," he said. "Me, I like to work, I like to actually put work in, it's fun. I mean, this is my job. I like to get in the gym, I like to lift weights, I like to play basketball, I like to do everything, I like to just get better.

"Those people who thought I would (return out of shape), they're idiots. People that expected me to come back in shape, they're smart," Lowry added laughing.

The Raptors returned from an off-season training and playing at various points abroad. DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas played in the FIBA World Cup, with DeRozan helping the Americans to a gold medal.

Valanciunas, also spent time working with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon and a running coach in Oregon "running on the track. . . doing some special exercises how to use less energy, be lighter on your feet, all the terms," he said.

While the Raptors are coming off a strong season, coach Dwane Casey said critics might call them a "one-year wonder." He wants his players to keep a chip on their shoulder.

"Going through the playoffs is a confidence builder. But this is a new year, so we've got to take that experience, add it to the work in the summer and get that two-by-four on our shoulder, because again, we still don't have the total respect of the NBA, we've got to make sure we gain that respect and keep that respect,." Casey said.

The goal, said Casey, is to repeat as division champions. Asked if the franchise's first 50-win campaign could come this season, Casey wouldn't bite.

"I don't know if we're in the conversation where we can say, hey we're a 50-win team or a 55-win team," Casey said. "Will we be an improved team? Yes. Whatever number that is, that's not my job to put a number on it. My job is take make sure we get back and get up running again and get that chip back on our shoulder from last year."

The Raptors will practise in Toronto on Tuesday before departing for Vancouver, where they'll work out all week until Sunday's exhibition game. Their first pre-season game in Toronto is Oct. 10 versus Boston. They open the regular-season at home on Oct. 29 versus the Atlanta Hawks.

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