Monday Sept. 29 marked the unofficial start of the Toronto Raptors pre-season. Media day opened at 10 A.M and in a span of two hours, almost every member of the 2014-2015 Raptors team, in addition to General Manager Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwayne Casey, spoke to members of the media about the upcoming season.
Ujiri was the first out of the gate, as the morning’s media scrums began on the second floor of Real Sports and Grill in Toronto.
GM Masai Ujiri spent his time talking about team unity, “These guys like each other,” Ujiri said, “ We have a chemistry, we have an unselfish team.”
Of course, Ujiri was able to re-sign key pieces of last year’s Atlantic Division winning team. Point guards Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez, along with power forward Patrick Patterson re-upped with the Raptors this off-season.
Other off-season additions included small forward James Johnson, Lou Williams and Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira. Ujiri was confident in stating this team can win. “We know the expectations are high, but that’s what comes with winning…we want to win, its that simple,” he said.
Ujiri also mentioned improvements in Jonas Valanciunas’ game, who worked with a running coach and NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon this off-season.
When the general manager was done, reporters flocked to coach Casey. The Raptors head coach was his usual calm, intelligent and thoughtful self, speaking to a horde of reporters for over 10 minutes. When reporters goaded him into predicting where the Raptors will finish this year, Casey, like always, knew how to handle himself.
“Its not my job to pick a number…but defending our division title is my goal,” Casey said. The coach spoke to a great degree about hard work, managing expectations and putting in the time during training camp. “We’re defending division champions, and we have to go out every night and play like it,” he stated. Casey spoke very highly of many of the Raptors, including swingman Terrence Ross, who he considers part of the team’s core.
Then, one-by-one, members of the 2014-2015 Toronto Raptors entered, dressed in their home white uniforms. There was a sense of calm, and perhaps a quiet confidence permeating through the team. The players weren’t flustered by the throng of reporters, cameramen, bloggers and media elite who closed in on them during the scrums. They weren’t emotional when asked about last season’s bitter game-7 defeat. They definitely didn’t sound nervous or anxious talking about the upcoming training camp and preseason games.
When asked about the 2013-2014 season, and the Northern Uprising, it was interesting to hear two very different takes on the game 7 loss to Brooklyn from team leaders Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan.
Fans still remember how it went down, with the Nets leading 104-103 with 8.8 seconds left and Lowry putting up the final shot that was swatted away by Paul Pierce. But lets not dwell on bad memories, at least that’s according to Lowry, “I’m over it now, I’ve done enough dwelling on it,” he said during his scrum. “We’re in a new season now, of course the question is going to come up, but the moment the ball goes up in the preseason, that question should be over.”
Meanwhile, Demar Derozan provided a much different perspective on those final moments, “I think about it all the time,” he told reporters. “We’re going to need that to feed off of…how bad that hurt…losing game 7, losing by one point. Now we start training camp and have that hunger to do it all again,” Derozan said.
Many of the players tried to stay on course. Answers to questions inevitably returned to training camp, the upcoming pre-season games and the regular season which begins on Oct. 29 when the Raptors take on the Atlanta Hawks.
That’s a game newcomer Lou Williams will be looking forward to. Williams was very poignant when he spoke to North Pole Hoops about the trade that sent him to Toronto, “I just thought Atlanta wasn’t a good fit for me,” Williams said coolly. “With the type of team they were building, the way I play wasn’t beneficial to them, and the minutes I played coming off the injury wasn’t beneficial to me,” he said, adding that he is now completely healthy, and excited to be with a Raptors team that wants him.
Barring injuries, Williams will be a member of the Raptors’ second unit, a group consisting of point guard Greivis Vasquez, James Johnson-who is now in his second stint with the team-Patrick Patterson and a group of centres that includes: Chuck Hayes, Greg Steimsma and Lucas “Bebe” Nogueria.
Kyle Lowry praised the second unit and the moves made by Masai Ujiri to fortify the team. “I’m very happy with the roster,” Lowry stated simply. “There are a lot of guys coming back. We have guys who are ready to play. Guys focused on getting to the next level.”
Veteran forward Amir Johnson was peppy, having fun and playing around with reporters and his fellow teammates. During Lowry’s media scrum, Johnson entered the semi-circle of reporters, asking Lowry what he thought of Amir’s new red hair colour using real views service. He also joked when I asked him if he had worked on his defense, and, if called upon, could successfully defend Kevin Durant this year (refer: youtu.be/ql7CTI19jgs ). Amir smiled, replying jokingly, “The real question is if Durant can guard me.”
Overall, the mood seemed to indicate that the team is confident, ready to take the next step while understanding the hard work that lies ahead. When asked, the challenge of higher expectations, greater interest from the public, and increased media coverage, didn’t phase any player-except Raptors first round draft pick Bruno Caboclo…but he gets a pass. The lanky, shy-looking, 19 year old, baby-faced Brazilian is still working on his English. However, he was able to muster enough words to tell North Pole Hoops that he admires and molds his game after Kevin Durant.
It was a room crawling with media at Real Sports bar–a sign of the team’s popularity, following a statement year, on and off the court.
With Media Day over, training camp now begins with a workout in Toronto, Tuesday. The team travels to Vancouver for four days of training before their first pre-season tilt on Sunday Oct. 5th vs. Rudy Gay and the Sacramento Kings.
The Raps will play eight pre-season games before the regular season starts at the end of October. But it all starts Tuesday, Sept. 30th, when 17 members of the Toronto Raptors attend their first training camp session at the Air Canada Centre practice facility.
That 17 will eventually be cut down to 13 players who will begin the season, as the Raptors attempt to defend their 2013/2014 Atlantic Division title.