SPORTS

Tight-knit Raptors care little about outside talk, scoff at playoff predictions

11/27/2014 06:19 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Greivis Vasquez was speaking to a large circle of journalists Thursday when DeMar DeRozan squeezed his way in through the crowd and affectionately draped an arm around Vasquez's neck.

This season's Toronto Raptors are a tight-knit bunch. And on a day ESPN pegged the Raptors' chances at winning the NBA title at a whopping 41 per cent, they scoffed. Anything said outside of their gym, they said, is all just noise.

"We don't care about nothing ESPN is saying, honestly," DeRozan said. "Nobody cares what anybody says. We care about everybody that's got this Raptors jersey on. Everything else don't matter to us, man."

"We've got our confidence," Vasquez added. "We don't need anybody to talk about us, whether it's good or bad."

The Raptors practised the day after their 126-115 victory at Atlanta that kept Toronto even with Memphis atop the NBA standings (13-2), and boosted their win streak to six games.

Thursday's ESPN's Hollinger Playoff Odds gave the Raptors a 100 per cent chance at making the playoffs, and a 71 per cent chance of making the NBA final.

They're lofty predictions never before seen in Toronto, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey similarly shrugged them off.

"I'm not a betting man, how many more games have we got to go? A lot of games to go. I'm not putting any credence in that," Casey said.

When someone asked if the predictions had at least put a smile on his face, he answered: "No. Not at all. None whatsoever. I live in reality. All I know is we have a tough game (Friday) night."

The Raptors host the Dallas Mavericks (11-5) on Friday amid a huge buzz around Canada's lone NBA franchise. What would have normally been a relatively quiet practice Thursday drew a couple dozen journalists.

The players say they're not looking at records, or getting caught up in the buzz. They're just enjoying playing.

"This is the best team I've played with by far," DeRozan said. "Not just basketball-wise either. Personnel. Everybody gets along, everybody has a great relationship with one another. That goes a long way. . . the chemistry that we have is amazing."

That even goes for his high school teams, DeRozan added.

Asked what he's thankful for — Thursday was Thanksgiving in the U.S. — DeRozan answered, his arm still slung around Vasquez: "Having teammates like Greivis. Honestly. Having teammates like all these guys here. Because it makes every day easier, even on the tough days, you find something to joke about, laugh about, have fun about.

"We've all been on bad teams, and what it feels like to come in and work, on the tough days."

While the Raptors are off to easily their best start in franchise history, they've had a favourable schedule at home that included a stretch of seven games in a row at the Air Canada Centre. They've also had some luck on their side, playing a Memphis Grizzlies team that was missing five players to a flu virus, and an injury-riddled Oklahoma City squad missing stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

"I don't believe in luck. I don't," DeRozan said. "I understand how hard I work, how hard this man works (arm still around Vasquez), how hard the other 13 players on this team work. And when people say the luck thing to me, I take it personally, because I know how hard we work to be as good as we are.

"Wasn't no fluke what we did last year. Wasn't no fluke, no luck."

DeRozan pointed to Toronto's strong performances on the road — their come-from-behind win over LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland, Wednesday's solid victory at Atlanta — as proof their red-hot record is more than luck.

"We like playing on the road, we like playing in other people's arenas, we get a thrill out of going to other people's houses and beating them," DeRozan said. "If you've got that type of mentality, we can go a long way."

Casey said the way his team has won games — pulling out a victory in tough situations — is also proof of the team's growth.

"The last three games we were in a pickle," Casey said.

They fell behind by 18 points to the Cavaliers before roaring back to beat them. They gave up seven three-pointers in the fourth quarter to Phoenix before clinching the win with a final 60 seconds of sheer hustle and hard work. They allowed Atlanta to stay close on Wednesday before pulling away down the stretch.

"I think two years ago, a year-and-a-half ago, we would have folded the tent," Casey said. "But there seems to be a resolve developing with our players, fighting through stuff, fighting through adversity, making adjustments at halftime mentally and physically. That's a tough way to live throughout this live. As a coach I'd prefer we'd start doing it the first quarter. . . that's our next step."

Following Friday's game, the Raptors head west for three straight, playing the Lakers in Los Angeles on Sunday, the Kings on Tuesday in Sacramento, and the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

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