TORONTO â€” When Masai Ujiri shook up the Toronto Raptors roster at February’s trade deadline, he talked about how the players, coaches and fans deserved a chance.
“Hey, let’s do it ’till we fail,” Toronto’s team president said then. “And you know what, if we gave it our best shot, we gave it our best shot.”
Two months after Ujiri acquired Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker to add another level of toughness to his team, the Raptors roar into the post-season playing their best basketball of the season, and are poised for what could be another long playoff run.
Did that shot pay off? The Raptors are about to find out. Ujiri has a pretty good feeling it has.
“Yesterday I was standing by my office and P.J. and Serge were arguing with Rex (Raptors assistant coach Kalamian) about something and coach (Dwane) Casey comes up and says ‘Those guys are talking about defence.’ That tells you what they’re about. There’s a level of intensity they’ve brought,” Ujiri said Friday.
“Kyle (Lowry) is our force and then DeMar (DeRozan) is our style and force. . . These guys we brought, they bring intensity and toughness and they’re about winning.”
The third-seeded Raptors host the No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the opening round on Saturday.
Lowry’s wrist injury in March was unlucky timing. He missed 21 games before returning to play the last four of the regular-season â€” his only game experience with Ibaka and Tucker.
“You wish you had them together longer,” Ujiri said. “But the team started playing well without Kyle and with Kyle now, I think we finished the season strong.
“On paper it all looks good when you make trades and bring in players. . . but now the second season starts. This is the big test for us, but I’ll say everyone feels good about going into this season. The last 15 (games), we were 12-3 so you like that momentum and continuity. So hopefully with those guys coming in, you hope that they’ve brought us some toughness and defence.”
Ibaka also brought the experience from 89 post-season appearances with Oklahoma City. Tucker, on the other hand, has zero NBA playoff experience. But no-one is worried about the hard-working forward wilting under the bright lights of the post-season.
“That’s one guy I don’t worry about,” Casey said. “If he misses a shot it’s not going to be because of the playoff jitters, because he’s a man. He’s a tough guy. He’s played overseas. He knows what pressure is about.
“And he does one thing that doesn’t take a lot to worry about: defending, rebounding, running the floor. . . you just play. He plays a man’s game, an old-school game. I think he’ll be ready for it.”
The Raptors have never won a Game 1 in the opening round of the playoffs. Their lone Game 1 win came in the second round against Philadelphia in 2002. It would be nice to get that proverbial monkey off their backs, Ujiri said.
“We have to come out and compete and play well and that Game 1 has always â€” I don’t want to say haunted us â€” but it is what it is,” he said. “We are going to come out and play and I know these guys look at is as their first playoff game and they are all excited to play.
“Records are made to be broken so hopefully we break this one this time.”
The Raptors will have their hands full with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the super-talented 22-year-old known as the “Greek Freak.”
Casey compared Antetokounmpo to a young Magic Johnson.
Ujiri hesitated to heap too much praise on the player on the eve of the series.
“I’m not going to say all the good things today,” he said. “Phenomenal player, young player coming up in the league, as a star. Always been big admirer of him as a person. . . there’s so much room for growth.
“I think he’s going to be a phenomenal player in our league, and he’s a joy to watch how competitive he is. I wish him the best of luck. Except the next few days.”
Ujiri praised the passionate Toronto fans, who have packed Maple Leaf Square â€” or “Jurassic Park” during the playoffs â€” for the past three years. The Square is busy on a nightly basis this season with the Toronto Maple Leafs also making the playoffs.
“(The players) love it,” Ujiri said. “This is the time. Everybody is out, Leafs are in, Toronto sports is on a high and I think it’s a big, big time for all of us. The fans, come early. . . the police take down those barricades so we can get more and more fans in there because we love it and the players love it and they feel it.
“From the moment when everyone comes in and sings the Canadian national anthem, that is the moment when you know it is beginning.”
Game 2 is Tuesday in Toronto then the series shifts to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Thursday and Game 4 next Saturday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press