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Good Vibes in Raptor Land (No, Really)

Kyle Lowry called it a “new chapter.”

To Landry Fields, its “starting fresh.”

Even for head coach Dwane Casey, its a “chance to set new goals and aim towards new achievements.”

Call it what you will, but Toronto Raptors’ media day was rife with excitement, anticipation and, above all else, ambition for the season that lies ahead. Even the “P”-word, a term seldom heard within team circles in recent years, was being thrown around confidently, almost defiantly.

“This year, we really believe that we can make the playoffs,” says third-year power forward Ed Davis, who had grown accustomed to winning in high school and in college at UNC before enduring two postseason-less NBA seasons in Toronto. “[Last year,] we said it but I don’t think everyone bought into it, but this year they’re like ‘that’s what we want to do’. There’s no BS – everyone thinks we can make it.”

At the risk of getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back. At the beginning of training camp, hope springs eternal and just about every club likes their postseason prospects. Newcomers breathe life into each roster, rookies are being favorably compared to past legends, vets are being lauded for their off-season developmental strides and every team is on even-footing, record-wise.

As Casey puts it, “29 other teams also think they’re improved heading into the season.”

And yet, in Toronto, there is a level of evidence behind the self-belief that is hard to ignore. The foundation was set last year as Casey led a talent-thin club to an increased win total in 16 fewer games and instilled a defensive mindset that bumped the Raptors’ ‘D’ all the way up to 12th after finishing the prior season ranked dead last. This season is about infusing that blue print with the right group of players (even if ‘Plan A’ target Steve Nash didn’t come on board).

Lowry (‘Plan B’ to Nash’s ‘Plan A’) is unmistakeably a Casey guy – a defence-orientated physical force who will out-muscle most opposing point guards.  Fields, meanwhile, represented the expensive (three years, $20 million) fallout to the failed bid for Nash, but he could now serve as part of the solution at the small forward position and was identified by GM Bryan Colangelo as a potential glue guy for the Raptors.

“They both go a long way towards furthering what we’re trying to do here,” says Colangelo of the two new likely starters. “Kyle has shown a knack for setting a physical tone and has grown into a solid play maker, while Landry brings that character element we’re looking for and will really help bring some competition for minutes at the wing spots. […] It’s great to have both these guys on board.”

Rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are new additions in their own right, making their NBA debuts after being selected by the Raptors in consecutive drafts (2011 and 2012, respectively). Ross is part of what Colangelo identified as the team’s improved long range shooting, as well as a source of competition for entrenched starter DeMar DeRozan at the two-guard position. As for Valanciunas…

“On the court, I’m [always] hungry. I expect to win,” says the Lithuanian rookie, who was a bundle of nerves upon facing a big North American media scrum for the first time. “I’m a high energy guy. I like running down the court, I like rebounding, blocking shots. I like to play hard.”

As the Raptors head east to kick off training camp in Halifax, its clear that the players have already “bought in”. It will take some on-court proof before the team’s long-suffering fanbase to follow suit, but the prevalent sight on media day was a squad that firmly believes in the direction in which they’re headed.

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