By EVA VOINIGESCU
The NHL lockout has for the moment sidelined Toronto sports fans’ primary passion. Fortunately there’s more than one game in town. Last week the Toronto Raptors began a new season with a promising one-two scoring punch and a beefed up defense that could help return Canada’s only NBA team to respectability.
It’s hard to predict how the rest of the year will play out after just five games. but Raptors fans have reason for optimism. Despite a disappointing 20-point loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Toronto’s 1-4 record belies its competitiveness. Were it not for a few poor quarters, the squad could easily be sitting above the .500 mark; once the Raptors find their bearings within a new system and with new players, they’ll have a strong chance to contend for a coveted Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Head coach Dwane Casey spent much of last year instilling a defence-first attitude; this year the team hopes to show further improvement by turning its stopping power into fast-break points. Thus far that game plan has been inconsistently executed, but if the players can maintain their defensive pressure and nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, it seems clear that they’ll be embraced by Toronto sports fans and hopefully rack up some victories. Flashes of potential have certainly been displayed by the high-scoring backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. New addition Lowry opened the season with three consecutive 20-plus point games (before incurring an ankle sprain against the Thunder), while DeRozan’s improved defence and rebounding, combined with offensive aggression, continues to pay off.
Meanwhile, after a successful pre-season, much-hyped rookie Jonas Valanciunas is still learning how to match his skills against more sizable NBA centers. Worrisome, too, is veteran power forward Andrea Bargnani. Back on the court after an injury-plagued 2011/12, he has yet to find his shooting stroke, and his effort on the glass is still rather suspect. However, increased depth at the point guard, wing and forward positions should help the team’s chances and ensure that injuries will be less problematic than in previous years.
The Raptors are in tough for the coming month, with 12 of the team’s next 17 games on the road. When they do manage to make it back to the Air Canada Centre, you can catch them against the Philadelphia 76ers on November 12, the Utah Jazz on November 12 and the Orlando Magic on November 18.