SPORTS

Raptors eager to battle Wizards in series that already has drama, villain

04/16/2015 06:50 EDT | Updated 07/01/2015 11:59 EDT
TORONTO - Masai Ujiri is hanging onto his cash this time around.

The Raptors general manager, who famously dropped a costly F-bomb in a pre-game rally before last season's NBA playoffs, bit his tongue Thursday when asked what he thought about Paul Pierce's verbal shot at Toronto. But his silence spoke volumes.

"I've been trying to figure that out and I honestly don't have enough money to respond to him," said Ujiri, who was fined $25,000 for his slur against the Brooklyn Nets last season. "I think if I did have enough money, everybody knows exactly how I would respond to it, and how the whole of Toronto would respond to it."

The Raptors host the Washington Wizards on Saturday in Game 1 of a playoff series that — thanks to Pierce — already has drama and a villain before the first ball has been thrown up.

There was bad blood between Pierce and the Raptors after the then-Nets forward blocked Kyle Lowry's final shot in Game 7 last season, clinching the series for Brooklyn.

Pierce threw fuel on the fire when he recently told ESPN.com he wasn't worried about facing Toronto because they don't have "it."

"We don't need his comments as motivation," Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said. "Just being in this position against a great team is all the motivation we need."

The Raptors gathered to watch video Thursday a day after they finished their best regular-season in franchise history. The mood around this team is noticeably different from the wide-eyed squad that took the court last season in their first playoff appearance in six years. Having felt the bright lights of the post-season, Ujiri said, means everything.

"It is such a different season, the intensity and what's at stake. . . it's a whole different ball game," said Ujiri, who addressed the media in a padded purple vest over a purple shirt. "Last year, we were underdogs. But these guys, that really, really gave them great experience to go out and perform. It's a big stage and I think these guys are fearless and now they kind of know a little bit of what to expect.

"Now, we're not underdogs anymore."

DeRozan, who averaged 23.9 points a game in his rookie playoffs last season, heads into the series playing the best basketball of his career. And he said he feels "a lot more comfortable" than this time last year.

"I didn't know what to expect. Everything was new to me and I was learning everything on the go. This time, I understand playoff basketball," DeRozan said.

What is playoff basketball?

"Every single step on that court means something. You have to leave everything you've got on the court," DeRozan said. "One player on that court last year had more playoff experience than our whole starting five in that series (Pierce has played in 148 post-season games). We learned about physicality, being smart, figuring out things on the go. We definitely learned a lot."

DeRozan and all-star Kyle Lowry have been, at times, one of the league's most potent backcourts. They were firing on all cylinders before DeRozan went down with a groin injury early this season. Lowry struggled after the all-star break, then missed nine of 10 games with a back injury.

With Lowry lingering in the doorway Thursday, DeRozan was asked what the Raptors can do if the two are at their best.

"We can get done whatever we want to get done honestly," DeRozan said — and Lowry applauded.

"And with that, I bring in Kyle Lowry," DeRozan added.

Lowry then stepped in front of the several dozen journalists in attendance and said, "He answered it. I think we can get done whatever we want to get done. That was the reason he was an all-star last year, I was an all-star this year. There's a good chance we can do a lot with both of us playing at a high level."

Lowry said the heartbreaking ending to last year's series — the image of Lowry lying on the court, DeRozan leaning over him is the most enduring of last season — lingered with him for months.

"It just motivated me to make sure that doesn't happen again," Lowry said. "And if it ever happens again I'll make the shot and do something to make sure I finish the shot and we're not on the floor mad, I'm on the floor happy and excited."

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