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Raptors remain undeterred in mission to defend their championship

With Media Day now behind them, the Raptors have officially begun their first ever NBA title defense. The odds are against them, but don’t tell them it’s not worth the fight.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the oddsmakers having given up on them — one book has them at 33-to-1 to win it all, behind a dozen other teams — the Raptors are not quite ready to call it quits on their 2019 title defense. On Saturday’s Media Day, that much was clear every time a member of the organization was asked about the mood heading into the new year. It began from the top of the day, and franchise, with team president Masai Ujiri setting the tone.

“I think the expectations in sports always is to win,” said Ujiri. “We play sports to win, there’s nothing else. We can do all the dance we want, we say whatever we want, we build, blah, blah, blah. Anything you do, you play sports to win. It’s that simple, and we’re playing to win.”

It was the standard flourish from Ujiri, made with a confidence now buttressed by accomplishment. But the Raptors president did have to acknowledge that he felt “lonely” up on the podium this time around. Last season, Masai took to the Media Day stage flanked by his team’s newest acquisitions, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, both of whom helped bring a title to Toronto. Now both are gone and the Raptors find themselves in a weird place, the league already moving on despite their pride of place as its champion. Still, this was the first time they were addressing the media since that most eventful summer, and each member of the Raptors was sure to echo Masai’s opening sentiment in their own way.

Returning for his second season as head coach, Nick Nurse sounded ready to renew his brand of lunchpail optimism built on getting in the gym and doing the work. He was quick to compliment the Raptors’ collective work ethic before even the start of training camp, noting both the “good” September basketball the roster’s younger players had gotten up to, while also expounding on his hopes for the season. “Opportunity abounds,” said Nurse. ”It’s a new season. I feel almost exactly the same as I felt a year ago, and the expectations are the same that I had.”

Meanwhile, the Raptors’ oldest player, Marc Gasol, is checking back into Toronto after having the most golden summer of his life, winning both an NBA title and the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Even with all these laurels, and the team’s plan to ease him into their training camp efforts, Gasol sounded eager. “I think it’s a very hungry team,” he said. “We all understand what Kawhi meant to the team and how well he played in the playoffs. But we also understand how we how great, how good we can be as a team. So we are going to invest everything needed to be that team.”

This will be Gasol’s first full season in Toronto (and it could likely be his last), but it’s clear he’s ready to get back to doing what he does best — developing the team’s chemistry and playing as a leader on the squad. He’ll be matched of course with Kyle Lowry, but there’s also a new swagger among the Raptors’ “young veterans,” as Norman Powell called themselves. This group is made up of some of Toronto’s longest serving players — Norm, Fred VanVleet, rising star Pascal Siakam — who are only now coming into their prime years, and have taken an increased sense of ownership of the team. And much like the team’s veterans and management, their competitive spirit is the same.

“Honestly, I don’t and we don’t — I can answer that as a collective unit — we don’t pay attention to that,” said Powell when asked about the team’s low chances of repeating as champs. “We really don’t care what the odds are, what people are saying. It’s been like that since I first came to that team as a rookie. We’ve always been the least favoured to win, to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, the East, whatever it is. We’ve always had that on us. Nothing changes, our focus is still the same.”

If we’re being honest, it’s been this underlying sentiment that’s proven to be the defining and durable identity for Toronto over the years — even if we don’t like to admit it. In years past, the Raptors’ never-say-die attitude read as vaguely delusional, each player striving for an impossible goal, often in the face of truly insurmountable odds. The seasons prior to their championship win each ended in disappointment and defeat, but they also somehow led to a renewed resolve, each member of the team committing themselves to return better than before. It’s an admirable stance in retrospect, especially when considered against those dark summers of the past six years, and the many hopeless times before then.

During this most recent run prior to the championship, the closest any Raptor came to admitting something approaching defeat was back in 2017 — and it came from the most unlikely source. After the Raptors had been dismantled again by LeBron and the Cavaliers to find themselves in a 3-0 hole in the Eastern Conferenc Semi-Finals, the heart and soul of the team, Kyle Lowry, said: “They’ve got LeBron James. Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.” Of course, even in that dark moment, Lowry wasn’t quite ready to give up entirely, adding: “But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

It was one of the few times Lowry would open himself like that. Few athletes will, since all have to consider themselves the best, impossible to beat, never to fail. When Lowry took to the podium yesterday, a smile on his face and a bounce in his step, he was asked what he hoped for in the coming year. The pressure is off now, a career of hard work has paid off, he’s got nothing left to prove to anyone — least of all himself. Without missing a beat, Lowry had his answer. What did he want for this season?

“Another championship. It’s always the same goal for me. I’m more motivated than ever.”