The Canadian Press
Earlier than workforce president Masai Ujiri positioned the fortunate toonie within the Raptors’ new apply ground, the workforce president held it aloft and mentioned: “That is for the Tampa Bay Raptaneers.”
The joke was a reference to Toronto’s non permanent NFL neighbours, the Buccaneers. And it mentioned loads concerning the weird season the Raptors are about to start.
The Raptors host New Orleans on Wednesday to tip off a brand new season. Another yr, Kyle Lowry and a new-look lineup would dominate the storylines. However this is not another yr.
Resulting from Canada’s journey restrictions round COVID-19, the Raptors are compelled to play at the very least the primary half of a 72-game schedule in Tampa, Fla. The Raptors have tried to make town on Florida’s west coast really feel like dwelling, constructing a brand new apply facility in in a downtown Marriott, and hanging the workforce’s 2019 NBA championship banner from the rafters of Amalie Area alongside Lightning star Vincent Lacavalier’s retired jersey.
A yr after greater than 20,000 followers celebrated the Raptors’ NBA championship ring ceremony on opening night time at Scotiabank Area, a restricted crowd of three,800 followers shall be at Amalie for Wednesday’s opener due to COVID-19 protocols.
“I perceive what goes into making this factor work . . . I believe all the things is in place to make sure that we could be as protected as doable,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet mentioned.
“It was a bit bizarre (throughout the pre-season) being again in entrance of followers for the primary time shortly however I believe we’ll all get used to the weirdness of this yr shortly.”
The worldwide pandemic may play the large spoiler this season. For now, the league has launched the schedule as much as March, and the Raptors would love to maneuver again to Toronto for the second half.
But when not?
“We wish to win. We wish to play basketball. So, whether or not we’re in Naples, whether or not we’re in a bubble in Orlando, whether or not we’re right here, whether or not we’re coming again, we play sports activities to win. All of us imagine in that,” Ujiri mentioned.
“You will have adversity. You will have issues that get in the way in which, however now we have that mindset as a corporation and I’m actually happy with them for this. Wherever we’re taking part in (the playoffs subsequent summer time) we are going to strive our greatest.”
On the ground, Lowry will quarterback a new-look lineup after a busy, abbreviated free company interval noticed Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol depart. Ujiri signed Aron Baynes to assist change them.
And if the Raptors have proved something, it is their potential to beat participant departures. Toronto had its greatest common season in franchise historical past after shedding Kawhi Leonard and Danny Inexperienced in free company, going 53-19 with a 73.6 win share earlier than the pandemic shut down final season. Boasting a defence that was second within the league, they clinched the No. 2 spot within the NBA. Nick Nurse earned coach of the yr honours.
“I am pondering we have been in all probability in a similar-ish scenario final yr,” Nurse mentioned on the eve of the opener. “I do not suppose anyone thought tremendous extremely of our workforce going into final yr. So, what I do know is we compete very laborious and we have a extremely good core group of men that is received numerous video games they usually know learn how to win.
“There’s numerous specialness inside a few of these guys they usually definitely present that numerous instances. So I am excited to see the ball go up for actual and watch us convey out our actual aggressive edge that we appear to play with.”
One of the vital promising storylines is the play of Malachi Flynn, picked No. 29 in final month’s draft. The purpose guard was spectacular throughout the workforce’s three pre-season video games, however cannot look forward to his regular-season debut.
“Positively,” he mentioned. “Pre-season is overrated, it would not rely, so, the true factor begins (Wednesday) and it’s one thing to be excited for.”
The emergence of OG Anunoby final season, notably within the Disney bubble, was a giant enhance for the Raptors. Ujiri rewarded the ahead on Monday with a four-year contract extension reportedly price US$72 million.
“He hopefully understands he can develop into one of many league’s elite defenders,” Nurse mentioned. “I like that a part of the sport. It is old-school, it is like an excellent old school pitcher’s duel in baseball or no matter. I like that half, there is a man that may are available in there and you realize that is what he’s, proper? After which (his offence), I simply suppose continues to develop.”
A highlight shall be on Pascal Siakam this season. Shouldering the scoring load after Leonard left, he fared nicely for the primary few months, incomes his first all-star look. However when the league restarted within the bubble, he wilted beneath fierce defensive consideration by opponents. Fingers pointed his route when Toronto was eradicated by Boston within the convention semifinals.
The way forward for Terence Davis can be a query mark. Davis was arrested in October in New York after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. He had a digital courtroom look on Dec. 11, and has one other listening to Wednesday. Nurse mentioned he anticipated to have Davis within the lineup for opening night time.
On the heels of internet hosting New Orleans, the Raptors head out on their first street journey of the common season, taking part in at San Antonio on Boxing Day and Philadelphia on Dec. 29.
This report by The Canadian Press was first printed Dec. 22, 2020.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press