Raps embracing underdog role

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:09 AM ET

Perhaps expectations for the Toronto Raptors were too high the past few seasons.

After winning the Atlantic Division in 2006/07, The Chris Bosh-led team was supposed to be a squad on the rise.

Instead, the Raptors were swept in the first round by Orlando, than missed the post-season entirely the past two years.

Now, with most pundits predicting them to be among the NBA’s worst in 2010/11, the club has amped up its level of passion and intensity considerably.

According to big man Amir Johnson, the changed attitude is a direct result of the criticism received.

“Everybody’s kind of downgrading us, we’re the underdogs, and we’re giving our best, we’re going to come out and kick some butt,” Johnson said after a spirited practice Saturday.

“I’ll be on Twitter and people tweet me with what people are saying and I heard Charles Barkley (who recently spoke disparagingly of the Raptors) and all that BS.”

The Raptors ran over the Phoenix Suns by 51 points in the pre-season opener Wednesday in Vancouver.

“We kind of went out and beat on Phoenix because people think we’re the worst team in the league,” Johnson added

“We’re going to prove a lot of people wrong.”

After years of what can be termed the Raptor malaise (poor effort and compete level, aversion to rebounding and defence), Johnson said the entire roster came to camp energized and that commitment has not wavered at all.

“From my opinion the intensity level started at 110% from the get-go,” he said.

“We’re running down the court every play. It doesn’t matter what drill we’re doing, we’re doing it 110%.

Though clichéd, Johnson’s opinion is accurate. This group is quite obviously going about its business differently than recent editions.

In a league that relies far more on talent than desire, it remains unclear how far the star-challenged Raptors can go, but at least they will give an honest effort.

The team takes on the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in Beantown Sunday night.

Johnson said the team made some mistakes, even in its 51-point victory and head coach Jay Triano is looking forward to seeing how much of the performance against Phoenix was a mirage.

“We played a team that was tired on a back-to-back, so let’s find out if our stuff is still going to be effective against a team that is a little bit fresher,” Triano said.

Triano confirmed Sonny Weems and Linas Kleiza are both good to go, having recovered from slight injuries.

Boston lost lead assistant and defensive guru Tom Thibodeau to the Chicago Bulls and Rasheed Wallace to retirement, but added creaky veterans Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal to a frontcourt that will be without starter Kendrick Perkins for at least three months.

Triano does not expect the stifling Celtics defence to suffer minus Thibodeau.

“I think they’ve learned what it takes to be successful and I don’t think they’ll back off at all," he said.

Though Johnson is looking forward to pushing the tempo against Boston’s ancient frontline, Weems cautioned that would not be easy since former league MVP’s Shaq and Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal - once in the top three in voting for that award – make up for a lot of what they have lost athletically with what is between their ears.

“They have a lot of older guys and they’re a lot smarter (than the young Raptors),” Weems said.

“They’ve got to use their mind instead of their athleticism on the court.”

While the guys in green do it their way, for now, at least, the green Raptors will rely on their young legs.

The mental part will come later.


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