Raptors ready for games that matter

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

At long last, the preseason is over. It's time for the Raptors to answer questions on the court.

TORONTO -- The wacky lineups are done with. Same goes for 20-man rosters and League Pass Broadband jumbotron feeds. On Wednesday night the Toronto Raptors will open their 2013-2014 regular season at the Air Canada Centre against the Boston Celtics and the 15 players on the roster will begin to make the argument that it shouldn't be dismantled. They'll try to show that they have enough talent to be in the playoff hunt, that they were improving when the cameras weren't on in the summer.

Are they expected to amount to much more than they did last year, are people talking about this Toronto team as a threat? Generally, no. At this juncture that's fair.

"Hey, we have to earn it, right?" general manager Masai Ujiri said.

As he does before every season, head coach Dwane Casey gave all of his players role cards on Monday. Each Raptor received three: one for his pocket, one for his locker, one for his agent. The idea is that there should be accountability and there should be no confusion. Your responsibilities on the court are right there on the card.

If you ask forward Rudy Gay, though, everyone already knows what he has to do. It's the same starting five that ended last season and most of the team has been training together since September. Nobody wants to repeat last year's sad, slow start full of close calls and blown calls.

"We definitely remember that start," Gay said. "I remember it and I wasn’t even here."

Gay knows the most telling tests will come when they're in the thick of it, tired and banged up, going up against teams with more talent, fighting for playoff positioning.

"It's just how things come into place when we face adversity, when we're down, when you've lost a couple games," he said. "That's when you find out the identity of the team or each individual player."

Casey's been saying what he wants to see since before last season ended. It's no secret the Raptors need to improve defensively. Ujiri wants the team to be tougher. The players want to take advantage of their athleticism and run, but at this point it should be clear that they first need to get stops.

"We all talk about it together," Ujiri said. "We've had many instances, starting from summer league when we had a great time to spend all together in Vegas, and came all the way to preseason and during training camp. We've spent a lot of time trying to at least establish what we want to be. And they know it. I think they feel it and everybody's anxious."

All of the storylines were clear long ago. Fans will pay attention to Gay and DeMar DeRozan's threes and free throw attempts and they'll compare Jonas Valanciunas' development to their own lofty expectations. They'll complain about the preposterous pizza promotion and the silly 3-D logo on the baseline. They'll worry about Kyle Lowry's health and his ability to play both ends at a high level for long stretches. Some of their questions will have answers in short order.

Over the next few weeks, conversations about Terrence Ross' consistency, Landry Fields' shot and the backup point guard battle will continue. So will those about the difficulty level of Toronto's early schedule. Thankfully, though, there will also be games that count.

"Enough of all the talking, basketball starts on Wednesday," Ujiri said.

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