TORONTO – Kyle Lowry is happy to be playing basketball for real.
Lowry leads the Toronto Raptors into their season opener Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers at the Air Canada Centre. And the veteran guard couldn’t be happier.
“(Training) camp has been over for me,” Lowry said with a chuckle following Tuesday’s practice. “We’re all just happy the season is here and everything really counts now.”
Toronto has won two straight home openers to stand 12-8 overall. The Raptors are 11-9 in season openers, having won their last two and three of their last four.
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Toronto is coming off a bittersweet 2014-15 campaign. The Raptors captured their second straight Atlantic Division title with a team-record 49 wins and finished fourth overall in Eastern Conference.
But the promising regular season ended abruptly as Toronto was swept 4-0 by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.
In the off-season, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri added the likes of DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo hoping to improve the team’s defence. But Lowry said defensive play has always been an emphasis under head coach Dwane Casey, who’s entering his fifth season with the franchise.
“All the camps with Dwane Casey are always (about) defence,” Lowry said. “I think this was the same as before but we just put in a different type of scheme.”
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Toronto hits the ground running with a busy week. After hosting Indiana, it visits the Boston Celtics – and former Raptor Amir Johnson – on Friday night before hosting the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday.
Casey said his biggest concern heading into the regular season is Toronto maintaining the intensity it had during the exhibition season, where it won five of its seven games.
“Just hoping our defence carries over from the pre-season, to make sure we maintain that edge,” he said. “Offensively, make sure we get a rhythm the next two weeks or so.
“All of us (NBA coaches) hold back stuff during the pre-season, we don’t show everything so you’re kind of going in blind (regarding) what we’re going to go against with (Indiana’s) offence. We’re confident with our concepts, our principles that we’ll be ready to go.”
Even with Toronto’s renewed commitment to defence, Lowry will again leads its offensive charge. The veteran point guard finished fourth in pre-season scoring, averaging 22 points per game while shooting 52.3 per cent from the field and 53.8 per cent from three-point range.
The six-foot-one Lowry was a league all-star last season, averaging 17.8 points and 6.8 assists per game. But the 10-year veteran drew criticism for his play down the stretch and against Washington in the playoffs.
However, the 29-year-old Lowry turned heads when he reported to training camp significantly leaner than he was last season.
Forward DeMar DeRozan, a 2014 NBA all-star, was Toronto’s scoring leader last season, averaging 20.1 points per game. DeRozan averaged 20.3 points per game in the playoffs against Washington.
But Toronto was ranked 25th in team defence. The expectation is Carroll, who averaged 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in 70 games with Atlanta last season, will provide solid perimeter defence end while giving Toronto another outside shooting threat.
“He’s going to make his baskets cutting, running hard, (playing) defence and creating offence,” Lowry said. “He’s a guy who does need the ball.”
Joseph, a Toronto native acquired from the NBA-champion San Antonio Spurs, is expected to run Toronto’s second unit in place of the departed Greivis Vasquez.
“It will be easy to play with Cory,” Lowry said. “He’s a guy who wants to pass first and make plays for his teammates and is very defensive minded.
“I think he’s going to learn that just be better over time.”
Opening against Indiana will provide Toronto with a challenge because the Pacers favour going with a smaller, quicker lineup. But Casey said his roster gives him plenty of options.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can go small in that situation,” Casey said. “The great thing about our roster now is we’re flexible, we can go small, we can play big.”
Lowry said Toronto can give Indiana plenty to be concerned about.
“We’re going to do what we do,” Lowry said. “That’s one thing we’ve got better at, just doing what we do and making teams adjust to us and not us adjust to other teams.”