Linas Kleiza knows a thing or two about beating the odds. He spent the better part of the summer hearing how the Lithuanian team he would be the face of would have difficulty making it out of the preliminary round of the world basketball championships.
The 2003 European champions had fallen on hard times and a Kleiza-led team of mostly young, unproven players wasn’t getting much respect.
Kleiza is hearing the same things now, just four days after arriving in Toronto to begin his first NBA campaign in two seasons. Only this time it is the Raptors that are being counted out before a game has even been played.
Having just arrived and familiar with only a handful of his new teammates like Reggie Evans, Leandro Barbosa and Sonny Weems, Kleiza isn’t prepared to say this collection of mostly young, unproven NBA players can buck the odds the way Lithuania did in Turkey, but then he’s certainly not prepared to say they can’t.
What he does know is it is possible, just as it was possible for Lithuania this summer to go from would-be first-round casualties to eventual bronze medallists.
“Everyone knew their role on the team and that’s why we were successful,” Kleiza said of the Lithuanian team that beat world powers like Spain, France, Argentina and finally Serbia to cop that bronze medal.
“It was all about a team. It was not about one player,” he said of that Lithuanian turnaround in Turkey.
Again, Kleiza has no idea whether the same magic can be worked by the rag-tag bunch of Raptors that form this year’s team, but he is very much aware of how they can give themselves the best shot and it all starts with a team-first approach.
“If it’s going to happen here, that’s what we need to have happen,” he said. “Looking back and forth they are two different stories (Lithuania at the worlds and the Raptors upcoming NBA season) but we kind of have a similar situation. If we come in here and don’t play that NBA-selfish basketball that tends to creep in sometimes, I think we can be OK.”
And right now “OK” would suffice assuming “OK” is a berth in the playoffs.
That’s the goal general manager Bryan Colangelo has set as he got away from the always-dangerous past precedent of predicting win totals.
That’s just not possible with a team that heads into training camp with so many questions.
The only definitive thing about the upcoming Raptors campaign from a manpower standpoint is that Andrea Bargnani will start somewhere. Everything else is up for grabs. Starting positions, touches, roles, everything.
Both Colangelo and head coach Jay Triano did their best to paint this as a good thing, but the reality is the more questions about a team on the eve of training camp means the higher liklihood of areas of weakness.
That is the Raptors’ reality, but Kleiza, after a year away from the NBA in the middle of one of the largest basketball rivalries in the world in Greece, only sees opportunity.
“Every game our confidence grew with each win and that’s what you need to do. Just build on it every game,” Kleiza said of his unforgettable summer with the Lithuanian national team.
As for the upcoming NBA season, Kleiza knows the odds are stacked against the Raptors. There is no Chris Bosh. There isn’t even a Hedo Turkoglu, which one media member suggested yesterday may in fact be an addition by subtraction.
Triano wants to use the fact that no one outside the organization is giving the Raptors any chance at all.
“That’s absolutely fine,” he said. “I love that challenge. I love the challenge when people tell us we’re no good or people don’t think we’re going to be that good and I want the other teams to believe when they come in here that it’s going to be an easy game for them because it gives us something to prove every day.”
Kleiza flat out refuses to see the year ahead as anything other than an opportunity.
“We all know we don’t have the major superstars who can carry a team by themselves,” Kleiza said. “We have to take pride in that. We have to take pride in playing the right way and being a team and not being individuals.”
Kleiza saw that work this summer. He believes it can work in the NBA. He can’t wait to find out.