The Raptors Enter Pre-Season Amid Heightened Expectations

The Toronto Raptors will begin the upcoming season in a precarious position, facing mounting pressure to outdo a 2013-14 performance that saw them landing the franchise’s first playoffs berth in years as well as the title of Atlantic Division Champions. Despite the fervor of the team’s fans, the Raps were destined to falter in the final 25 seconds of the first round, losing out to the Brooklyn Nets.
However, while a round-one knockout would mark a disappointing season for certain other teams in the league, the Raptors and their fans were elated. Now, they don’t just have to do it all over again, they have to do one better to keep the momentum going and place Toronto on the NBA’s map.
“You have to embrace it,” said Coach Dwane Casey during Media Day. “I think this is the first time this organization, even before I got here, had heightened expectations. And I think it’s a good thing, it’s good pressure.”

The players on the roster are feeling it, too. Greivis Vasquez feels that it’s up to the team to make Toronto a destination for star players. Amir Johnson voiced a similar opinion. Of course, no player’s performance will be picked apart more than that of Kyle Lowry, whose all-or-nothing shot in the final seconds of last year’s Game 7 was blocked by Paul Pierce, resulting in a series loss. Though he’s aware of the pressure placed on him, Lowry’s rearing for a fresh start now that he’s back from testing the waters of free agency.

“I’m over it right now. I’ve done enough dwelling on it and looking back on it,” said Lowry. “We’re in a new season right now.”
The team brought back their core rotation from last year, as well as the same coaches and front office, but there are also several changes. For one, the team has a few new faces—Bruno Caboclo, an 18-year-old rookie with an albatross’ wingspan and dreams of outdoing his idol, Kevin Durant; Lou Williams, brought in for his scoring and veteran leadership abilities; James Johnson, who’s returning to the team for a second time after butting heads with the Raps’ brass in 2011.
According to Lowry, Williams in particular will be instrumental this year. “[Williams] is going to be a real big help for us,” he said. “We’re going to put a little more pressure on him because we need him to score, and that’s what he’s pretty much brought in to do.”
That’s exactly the role Williams said he’s accepted as part of the team, adding that he is confident that he’ll take the franchise further. “They want to win, and I want to be part of that process,” said Williams.

The playoffs-hardened core from last year has also seen improvement, according to Coach Casey. He was quick to point out that he’s starting to think of Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas as end-of-game players, especially Valanciunas for his free throw shooting abilities. Lowry remains the “hub” of the team.
Amir Johnson and other players applauded GM Masai Ujiris’ efforts to sign the same players back, which will allow Casey to keep the Raptors’ fundamental play style the same, with exception to a few facets “defensively and offensively in certain situations.” Cliches aside, there have to be solid improvements on the defensive end, especially in terms of Valanciunas and Johnson protecting the rim—that much Casey is willing to admit up front.

While it’s still too early to talk championships chances, Greivis Vasquez and other players are sounding positive heading into training camp. Every player we heard said that they expect to make the post-season. Casey, on the other hand, remains diplomatic, if a little unsure, not unlike the fans of a franchise that hasn’t had a particularly stellar track record.

“Our goal is to win the division, whatever that takes,” said Casey. As for getting further than last year? “That next step is a huge step. Are we there yet? We’ll see. We’re still a young team and we still have growing to do as a team… I don’t know if we’re there yet.”

For Vasquez, the equation is much simpler: “Hopefully we get better and win a lot of games.”

He said it.
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