Long road to respectability for Raptors

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:48 PM ET

There is no better backdrop to establish an identity than opening night, no better moment to set a season’s tempo and begin the process of disproving the many naysayers.

A season isn’t salvaged and nor is it lost on one night, but Wednesday’s opener for the Raptors represents a long-awaited beginning, the ushering in of an era that can’t be described and explained in the wake of so much unknown.

The Raptors aren’t possibly as bad as many would have you believe, aren’t as talented as in the past, but no one can say with any certainty or a straight face what awaits this group.

One has to go back as far as the regrettable 16-66 season when the Raptors hit rock bottom to find a period in the franchise’s history when a legitimate go-to guy wasn’t on the roster.

Looking back at that third season, Chauncey Billups would evolve into that player who could win a game in a late-game scenario, but his ascension wasn’t achieved until Billups found himself in Detroit.

There is no Billups, no Bosh, no Vinsanity, no Mighty Mouse, no T-Mac and no hope, if you pay attention to the prognostications.

In the absence of a star player, the Raptors promise to be a team that will give itself a chance to win when it plays together, plays tough and refuses to cave in mentally.

“This should be the introduction to how we’re going to let the 82-game season go,’’ Jarrett Jack said following Tuesday’s workout in anticipation of Wednesday’s curtain raiser.

“Beginning (Wednesday), every time we take to the floor is a new chapter in that book. Forward steps must be taken and it starts now.”

It’s not certain how the Raptors will decide to defend Amare Stoudemire, who makes his debut as a Knick following years of high-level play in Phoenix when this athletic big played alongside Steve Nash.

The Raptors did a good job of defending the three-point line, but now comes the true test against the perimeter-happy Knicks, who should get open looks when opponents double Stoudemire on the block.

Andrea Bargnani figures to be a much more prominent figure, but the jury is still out on his ability to consistently rebound the basketball.

In Bosh’s injury absence last season, Bargnani had a difficult time dealing with an extra defender when teams forced the ball out of his hands.

How Bargnani steps up under the scrutiny will go a long way in determining what kind of inroads are made this season.

He’s not the only player under the microscope, but on a team where Bargnani should be the best player a solid start to the season will certainly draw attention.

In Linas Kleiza, the Raptors have a frontcourt player who can slide in at small forward and play at power forward, a guy who knows how to score and a guy looking to assert himself at the NBA level after going overseas to refine his game.

More than anything, Kleiza has to show that he can defend, be able to chase quicker players around screens and try to play big when he’s in the paint.

Guys such as DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems will be asked to make shots and apply pressure on defences by attacking the rim.

Jose Calderon has to put aside the tumult of an off-season deal gone sour and two previous seasons of underwhelming play.

In a nutshell, everyone head coach Jay Triano throws on the floor has to play well because there isn’t one guy to carry this group.

“It’s sort of like the first day of school,’’ Jack continued in describing opening night. “It’s been a long summer and now we see what challenges lie ahead.

“People don’t respect us and that’s the No. 1 thing on top of our list. You earn respect by playing hard and being consistent. We know we have to establish a brand of basketball that makes teams respect us.”

And it all begins on Wednesday.

frank.zicarelli@sunmedia.ca


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