SPORTS

After last season's thrill ride, Raptors have to figure out how to do one better

10/27/2014 12:25 EDT | Updated 12/27/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Thousands of fans packed Maple Leaf Square, the general manager dropped an F-bomb, Drake became the team's biggest cheerleader and "We the North" flags flew across the city. The images of last season's thrilling success were unlike any other for the Toronto Raptors.

Now they have to figure out how to do it one better.

The Raptors carry lofty expectations into their 20th NBA season when they host the Atlanta Hawks in their opener Wednesday.

"This is the first time since this organization — even before I got here — had heightened expectations and I think that's a good thing," said coach Dwane Casey. "It's something we've got to embrace, we've got to take it and run with it because it's going to be there.

"There's no pressure, it's good pressure. We're defending division champions and we have to go out every night and play like it."

The Raptors won a franchise-record 48 games last season and claimed the Atlantic Division title for just the second time. They paced the Brooklyn Nets through a thrilling first-round playoff run that ended in heartbreak when Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry's shot on the final play of Game 7.

The bitter ending played out in the Raptors' minds long into the off-season and they've been eager to get back on the court to erase the disappointment.

"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 DeMar DeRozan. "We've got to. . . have that hunger and that edge to do the same thing all over again this year."

The Raptors don't see any reason why they can't. Everyone is back from last season. General manager Masai Ujiri completed the biggest piece of the puzzle when he signed point guard Lowry to a new four-year, US$48-million contract.

Not only do Lowry and DeRozan provide the Raptors with one of the best backcourts in the Eastern Conference, continuity is everything, the players say.

"We're going to hold ourselves to a higher standard this year," said forward Patrick Patterson. "We feel like we should start off the year a lot better just because, with the way we finished, the type of chemistry we have, we basically still have the same pieces.

"We know that we're going to put ourselves pretty much on a pedestal. We see the goals, we know what we can achieve and we feel like if we work hard, play hard, come together, then anything is possible."

Ujiri also re-signed Patterson and Greivis Vasquez — both acquired in last season's trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento, the turning point after the Raptors had stumbled to a 6-12 start.

The GM also acquired Lou Williams — an athletic veteran and clutch shooter who could prove to be a huge contributor off the bench — and James Johnson, a hard-working forward who brings plenty of energy on the defensive end.

Of the team's young core, DeRozan only continues to get better. The six-foot-seven guard, who just turned 25 in August, scored a career-high 22.7 points last season and earned his first all-star nomination. Then in the summer, when he wasn't helping the U.S. to FIBA World Cup gold, he was, as always, working on adding to his arsenal — this year, it was strengthening his left hand.

"I'm just trying to find new challenges, honestly, within myself to find something else to get better at," said DeRozan, who has also blossomed off the court, from once being one of the team's shiest players to being one of its most thoughtful and well-spoken.

Centre Jonas Valanciunas and wing Terrence Ross, who thrived in his starting role after the Gay trade, also continue to show a steady progression. Casey has to hope they're stronger, emotionally, for the playoff jitters they struggled with — especially Ross — last season.

While the Raptors won't fly under anyone's radar in their 20th campaign, Casey cautions that critics might call them a "one-year wonder." The coach stresses they have to keep that chip on their shoulders that drove them during bleaker times, when nobody considered them an NBA threat.

"Going through the playoffs is a confidence builder," he said. "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."

While the goal is to repeat as division champions, Casey won't put a number to how many wins he's expecting.

"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," said the 57-year-old coach. "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, who went a league-best 7-1 in the pre-season, have an excellent opportunity to be strong right out of the gate. They play 11 of their first 16 games at home.

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