No room for complacency for Raptors this season

By Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun

Raptors' DeMar DeRozan (right) and Terrence Ross have some fun between shots at Raptors' media day on Monday. (Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)

Raptors' DeMar DeRozan (right) and Terrence Ross have some fun between shots at Raptors' media day on Monday. (Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)

Almost everywhere Amir Johnson went this summer, someone wanted to shake his hand, take his picture, just say thanks.

He and just about all his fellow Raptors were on a non-stop feel-good celebratory tour of sorts, with euphoria being the emotion of the summer: Their own individual group of Stanley Cup parades without a trophy or a route of any kind.

“Everybody loves a winner,” said coach Dwane Casey on the Raptors well orchestrated Media Day at Real Sports. Except the winner in question, these Raptors, won some games, got everybody excited, lost the only playoff series they played in, gave us something to cheer about momentarily, then did the Toronto thing: They broke our hearts.

All in a the span of a best of seven that has carries over until now.

A playoff series that so excited the market — the best Air Canada Centre in history — the carryover continues as the Raptors begin training camp with the hopes of moving forward.

In the real world of the NBA, where making the playoffs in the East is usually a given and losing a first-round playoff series is something just about anybody breathing can accomplish, the Raptors past season was rather meaningless. But in the context of Raptors basketball, and Toronto sports for that matter, where making the playoffs is huge at anytime, even in soccer for cripes sakes, and getting to a Game 7 becomes a where-were-you moment (see New Jersey last year, Boston the year before) you can understand how desperate this market is for sporting love. How desperate this city is for success.

The Raptors were the best team in Toronto last year. They should be the best team in Toronto again this season. And it’s important for them to be something other than a lovable, try-hard first-round loser.

They’ve already lost the one playoff series they should have won, the only playoff series we’ve seen in the Dwane Casey and now Masai Ujiri era. Playing well, entertaining people, turning Maple Leaf Square into a playground, is a wonderful goal. Winning is more important than that. Establishing a winning culture, year in year out, a team that can challenge for the Eastern championship, a team that should win in the 50-game range (something no Raptor team has ever done) is not just important, it’s necessary.

“We’re going to win in this city,” said Ujiri, the general manager, without a single expletive in his sentence. “We’re going to win big.

“We’re still a young team, young guys. The question is, what did we gain from the experience of last year? How much did we learn? Anybody can win one year. Our job is to do it every year.”

Kyle Lowry returns with a new contract and with financial security and hopefully that does nothing to diminish the chip on his shoulder. He plays better with that chip. He needs to be me-against-the-world. It’s what made him a great NBA player and can make him that again. He was very good last season, the clear leader. He needs to get better this year, every year.

DeMar DeRozan spent part of the summer with Team USA and part of the summer working on his left hand. He cut his food with his left hand, brushed his teeth with his left, tied his shoes that way. The only all-star of last season wants to be harder to play against.

Terrence Ross spent the off-season eating. He ate a lot. He put on just 15 pounds on his pencil-thin frame. “I don’t feel like a rookie anymore.” The Raptors hope he doesn’t play like one anymore.

A few seconds of Ross all but explained his up and down season in Toronto. In Game 7, he made the remarkable athletic steal that gave the Raptors a final shot to win. But on the play to win the game, he went the wrong way. He knows his decision probably cost the Raptors the victory. “I have to grow from that,” he said.

They all have to grow. That is the point of this season. The excitement, the emotion, the hope that was last season — and the belief this was a team on the rise — is all last year.

Now is all that really matters with the Raptors. Now is about maybe winning 50 games, winning a round of the playoffs, pushing closer to being a contender. Imagine then the celebration of something more than a first-round defeat in Toronto?

Imagine that.


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