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TORONTO - Its been a long time coming for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri. [url=h
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TORONTO - Its been a long time coming for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri. Wholesale NHL Jerseys Online . On the eve of the 2013-14 NBA season, he can finally take a step back and allow his team to do the talking. "The NBA, it doesnt matter how good you are or how bad you are, that first day is exciting," he said Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of Wednesdays season opener at home to the Celtics. "You wait all summer. We talked the good talk and hyped the good hype and now its time to play. So well see how it goes." Not unlike the offseason, the preseason was long, bizarre at times but most importantly for those that aim to evaluate this team, its over. Now the real test begins. "Im not a big fan of trying to evaluate the preseason," Ujiri admitted, following a 6-1 exhibition season. "Its tough to evaluate there. You can win every single game and what does it mean? You can lose every game and what does it mean? [Wednesday] is when it starts to count." For Ujiri and the Raptors, the massage hasnt changed. As the franchise gets set to tip off its 19th campaign, those steering the ship continue to keep their intentions to themselves. As for the teams immediate goal, the expectations are still being tempered. "I think for us to play hard and play tough out there and compete is what we expect at a minimum from this team," Ujiri said. "In terms of expectations, were all evaluating and were going to see how it goes." Head coach Dwane Casey, asked again about his playoff aspirations, went a step further. "If we do what were supposed to do, play the game the right way, improve the way we should improve, we should be in the [playoff] conversation," Casey said. "Whether were going to make it or not, I cant sit here and say that." "Were going to be scrapping and fighting, thats our goal but to sit here and say that were a playoff team, I cant honestly say that. But right now, I like where we are." Whether its a spoken expectation or not, the postseason is a realistic goal for a team flirting with the luxury tax, even one that has failed to qualify in each of the last five seasons. Theres little room for error. In order to reach the playoffs theyll need good health, a big season out of the returning starting five, continued improvement from the young players and a little bit of luck for good measure. Listen here as Josh Lewenberg and Duane Watson preview the season in this weeks edition of TSN 1050s Raptors Report podcast. The following are burning questions that will be instrumental as the Raptors season gets underway this week. The answers to these questions should determine how successful they will be in 2013-14 and whether or not a return to the playoffs is in the cards. 1. Can Casey and co. recreate the defensive renaissance of 2011-12? It should come as no surprise that Coach Casey has committed to re-emphasizing defence in his third and most crucial season with the Raptors. Defence, as we know, has been Caseys bread and butter throughout his 18-year career as an NBA coach. After helping lead the Mavericks and their resurgent defensive unit to a championship in 2011, he was tasked with changing the culture in Toronto, with which he had immediate success. In his first year with the team, during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, the Casey-led Raptors began to shed the perception that had been haunting them. They were, up until that point, a perennial doormat, a soft team. In 66 mostly hard-fought games, Casey changed all that. He took a team that ranked at the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category the year prior and made them competitive. The Raptors finished that season as the NBAs most improved team in opponent field goal percentage (from .482, 29th in the NBA to .435, 8th) and opponent scoring (from 105.3 point allowed per game, 26th to 94.0, 9th). Despite a 23-43 record and an 11th place finish, there was legitimate reason for optimism. Then, just as quickly as the defensive renaissance came to be the year prior, that progress was undone during a turbulent 2012-13 season. In the interest of correcting their offensive shortcomings, coupled with directives from the front office, Casey shifted his focus to playing up-tempo early in camp. With the addition of inexperienced players (Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross) and some risk-taking defenders (Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry), the teams once fundamentally sound defence took an immediate hit. Despite a strong finish, the Raptors were a below-average defensive team, something Casey simply wont tolerate. "Weve got to be a defensive team first," he reiterated on Tuesday. "Weve got to be a team that competes, that scraps, that fights. Were not going to out-talent anyone, were not going to just jack up threes over anyone, weve got to out-scrap and out-fight everyone we go against." With Caseys contract set to expire after this season, the Raptors head coach has wisely gone back to the basics on the defensive end. The preseason yielded mixed results. Apart from a 36-point drubbing of the Grizzlies, with the starters on both sides getting the bulk of the playing time in the first three quarters, Torontos defence was ordinary at best. Ironically the Raptors churned out the NBAs third most efficient offence in the exhibition season. The defensive results during the real games will likely determine Caseys future with the team. "Every year is big for every coach in the league," Casey said. "I take my job seriously, every possession seriously, every game seriously, every practice seriously. So I wouldnt say that this [year] is anymore important than it was last year, my first year or my last year in Dallas. I want to win and whatever it takes to win Im going to do it. Nothing changes for me." 2. Will Rudy Gay finally take the next step and become an All-Star? Gay has led his team in scoring in four of the last six seasons. Last season he led two teams in scoring, the first player to do so in nine years. He is due to make just under $18 million this year and will collect over $19 million next season should he pick up his player option. He has never been an All-Star. Like most of this roster Gay is coming off an emotionally and physically exhausting campaign. He battled injuries and brushed off ongoing trade speculation as a Grizzly, eventually giving way to a midseason shakeup that took him from the only NBA home hes ever known - a winning team in Memphis - to a city over 900 miles away, one that hasnt seen playoff basketball in five years. Unlike most of the players on this roster, hes accustomed to winning. His busy offseason is indicative of the high standards hes set for himself. Gay worked tirelessly to expand his game, even training with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, which could come in handy when Casey goes to a small lineup and the forward is asked to quarterback out of the post. Gay also added muscle and underwent a procedure to correct blurred vision in his left eye.  Both his added strength and the improved vision will be imperative if Gay is going to become a more efficient scorer - he shot a career low 42 per cent from the field last year, coupled with declining success from three-point range. The initial results have been positive as Gay shot 48 per cent from the floor and 40 per cent from three in the exhibition season. "This puts him on a good platform to play this season here," Ujiri said of Gay. "I think with Rudy, hes worked hard in the summer, hes got great athletic ability and now he just has to show it on the court. I think hes very prepared to do that now." Is he ready to take the next step? Thats what hes put in the work for. 3. How much will Jonas Valanciunas evolve in his second season? Valanciunas is another Raptor coming off a busy summer. After taking home Summer League MVP in Las Vegas, where he averaged 18.8 points and 10.0 rebounds, he helped lead the Lithuanian National Team to a second-place finish in the FIBA Eurobasket tournament and a birth in next years World Cup of Basketball. The Raptors sophomore centre drew rave reviews in Vegas, not entirely for his dominance against less skilled players but for his improved arsenal in the post and the added strength hes put on since last season came to an end. Valanciunas came on towards the end of his rookie year, winning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honours in March and scoring in double figures in 17 of his final 19 games. Still just 21 years old, Valanciunas rapid growth in stature and on the court is a reason for optimism and Ujiri believes the sky is the limit for the young centre. "Hes making progress," the Raptors GM said. "Hes a big kid and loves to play. Hes 21 years old so theres a lot of basketball in front of him." 4. Will Kyle Lowry hold up and can he bounce back in a contract year? To his own admission, Lowry failed to live up to exceptions in his first year as a member of the Raptors. Acquired from the Rockets for a first-round pick last summer, the 27-year-old point guard got off to a hot start before suffering the first in a series of injuries during the fourth game of the season. Lowry would go on to miss 14 contests, the bulk of them early in the season as he battled inconsistency on both ends of the floor the rest of the way. Plagued by foot, ankle and back ailments while also missing time with an injury to his triceps muscle, he was never fully healthy. No longer forced to look over his shoulder following the midseason trade of Jose Calderon, Lowry was given more freedom to run the offence and continued to flash glimpses of what could be. One of the premier rebounders at his position, Lowry possesses a rare combination of speed and strength for a guard but his health and attitude have held him back throughout his seven-year career. Heading into his eighth season, and second with the Raptors, Lowry does not lack motivation. Facing unrestricted free agency this coming summer, he has 82 games to prove himself to Ujiri and the rest of the league, prove that hes worth investing in as a starter, rather than the journeyman point guard he resembled last year. The motivation is there and so too is the opportunity. Without a clear back-up, Lowry will be asked to log big minutes as long as hes in uniform. Hell begin the season playing with a splint on his injured left ring finger but after coming to camp in pristine shape, shedding some excess weight in the offseason, the hope is that Lowry can shoulder the load at the point. "Hes done an excellent job," Ujiri said of Lowrys approach in camp. "Hes come in focused [and] his bodys right. Hes the gear of team, he keeps everybody going [and] hes got an edge to him." 5. Can DeMar DeRozan carry over his preseason success? At 24 years young, DeRozan has become a veteran on this team. Now the longest tenured Raptor (he and Amir Johnson have both been with the team since 2009-10), he is also under contract longer than any other Toronto player after signing an extension prior to last seasons opener. Understandably, he wore down towards the end of the campaign - he was fourth in the league in minutes played - but the fourth-year guard made some noticeable improvements in the post and as a distributor. DeRozan collected five or more assists in 12 games last season after accomplishing that feat in just five total games during his first three years. He carried over a lot of those improvements into a standout preseason. "I think hes been phenomenal," Ujiri said of the Raptors guard. "He seems more focused. I know hes stronger, hes attacking the rim more and hes not only doing it [but] hes also saying hes going to make a commitment to do it." "You can see where hes growing slowly as a basketball player, a complete basketball player. What his weaknesses are, I think he works on [them] and works on [them] hard." Still, as the Raptors second-highest paid player there will be added pressure for DeRozan to continue and evolve this season. BEST OF THE REST How well will they navigate through a tricky start to the season? Again, the league has done the Raptors no favours with their early-season schedule. After playing 15 of the first 22 games on the road last year, theyll open this season with 19 of 34 contests coming away from the Air Canada Centre. That stretch will be daunting, facing elite competition right out of the gate, including a couple of home contests against the defending champion Miami Heat. "[Its] very challenging," Ujiri said of the schedule. "Since the first day we got it I dont think Ive looked at it again. Thats how tough it is. We have to play, it doesnt matter how tough it is." "The schedule is what it is," Casey continued. "Its brutal." With a new GM watching over their progress, Casey and his club cant afford another slow start. Theyll be immediate pressure on them to overcome the early-season degree of difficulty and at least tread water until the schedule eases up. Who will step up in Caseys second unit? The Raptors bench was a concern throughout the exhibition season, routinely looking disjointed on both sides of the floor and coughing up big leads that the more experienced first unit would accumulate. With the starters already expected to log big minutes, Casey will try to rotate in one or two members of the first group whenever he does go to the bench to avoid long stretches with five reserves on the floor. Still, the team will need to get consistent production of its primary subs. The progress of sophomore Terrence Ross could determine how successful this group is on a night-to-night basis. Casey will need Ross to provide consistent scoring off the bench while newcomer Tyler Hansbrough brings his typical brand of energy and Landry Fields bounces back, serving as a point forward with that group. The back-up point guard position has been a precarious one in camp. Veteran D.J. Augustin was brought in to serve as Lowrys primary understudy but has been failed to stand out above rookie Dwight Buycks and the recently signed Julyan Stone. Casey has indicated that Augustin will still be given the first crack at the gig given his experience but the leash will be a short one with the two younger point guards, both better defenders, breathing down his neck. When will Ujiri pull the trigger? Or better yet, will Ujiri pull the trigger? The Raptors opportunistic GM continues to bide his time, exercising patience and evaluating this group, most of which he inherited from his predecessor. "Theres a responsibility on me and my team," Ujiri acknowledged. "We have to put the right players on the floor. We have to coach and we have to play. Enough of all the talking, basketball starts on Wednesday." At that point the clock starts and no one knows when and how Ujiri may decide to strike. Again, the early portion of the season could go a long way in determining whether Ujiri feels obligated to put his fingerprints on the roster, and to what degree. "Were excited about the season and were going to go out there and do our best and do whats best for the organization. Yes, I study the past and I know the history of the team but I start now. Its now and the future for me." Authentic NHL Jerseys Cheap . -- Thirty years ago, the Detroit Pistons beat the Denver Nuggets 186-184 in triple overtime, a game that remains the highest scoring in NBA history. Cheap Adidas NHL Jerseys . 1 and reigning champion Caroline Wozniacki was among Thursdays third-round winners, while second- seeded Victoria Azarenka pulled out of the draw at the $4. http://www.cheapnhlcustomjerseys.com/ . So true. It is one thing to create a winning football team, and another to keep it winning. Each and every week it changes. The NFL creates a unique interest of not who is "the best", but much more who is "the best this week".BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ryan Miller was more concerned about overcoming jetlag than thinking about providing a memorable send-off in what could potentially have been one of the goalies final games for the Buffalo Sabres. A little over a day after returning to Buffalo from the Sochi Games, and with his future uncertain, Miller stopped 36 shots and even contributed to the offence with two assists in a 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night in the NHLs first game after its Olympic break. "I wasnt really getting to far ahead or thinking about that kind of stuff," Miller said when asked about his future. Before the game, general manager Tim Murray acknowledged hes shopping the goalie with the intention of dealing him before the leagues trade deadline on March 5. Miller is on the block because hes in the final year of his contract, and Murray is unsure whether the 33-year-old is prepared to re-sign with a team thats rebuilding through youth. "Im trying to take the approach to take things as they come right now and be positive and play hockey," Miller added. "Its a lot of fun to play and win. Im going to try to enjoy these kind of moments where you can help make a difference." Despite feeling "a little bit goofy" from jetlag, Miller was certainly the difference by stopping the first 20 shots he faced in a game in which Buffalo was outshot 38-18. "It just shows what kind of goaltender we have in Ryan Miller," interim coach Ted Nolan said. "I dont think we had too much reason to say we were the better team tonight outside of Ryan Miller stealing that game for us." Christian Ehrhoff scored twice, including the go-ahead goal with 44 seconds left. Tyler Ennis also scored for Buffalo, which snapped a four-game skid, and won for only the third time in its past 14 games (3-8-3). Both of Millers assists came on Ehrhoffs goals. That made him the NHLs first goalie to have that many since Vancouvers Cory Schneider had two in a 5-4 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on Dec. 11, 2010, according to STATS. Ehrhoffs decisive goal came after he circled the Hurricanes net, and then stopped and spun in the right circle, where he attempted to feed the puck through the crease to teammate Marcus Foligno. The puck instead glanced off the stick of Hurricanes defenceman Justin Faulk and floated inn over goaltender Cam Ward. NHL Jerseys From China. Eric Staal and Alexander Semin scored for the Hurricanes, who lost to Buffalo in regulation for the first time in seven meetings, dating to a 1-0 loss at Carolina on Nov. 18. 2011. The teams got an early start coming out of the NHLs two-week break. The game was originally scheduled to be played Jan. 9, but postponed after a blizzard hit Buffalo. Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller found little fault in his teams performance. "Miller was the first star, and theres your answer right there," Muller said. "That was a complete, solid game on our part for 60 minutes. We did everything we had to do." Everything, of course, except score more than Buffalo. Miller put on a show. Early into the second period, he got a piece of Faulks snap shot from the left circle, and then recovered in time to turn aside Manny Malhotras attempt to convert the rebound in front. Miller had Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner looking up to the rafters and shaking his head midway through the second period. That reaction came after Skinner got off a hard shot from the right circle on a partial break, only to have Miller snag it with his glove. "We had a lot of chances," said Staal, who beat Miller through the legs on a 2-on-1 break. "When its a close game, you have to be able to bury them. And tonight, Miller made a lot of good saves." Following the game, Miller spent time surrounded by fans at the penalty box, where he took part in a television interview. He then got a cheer from the few remaining fans inside the arena as he headed to the locker room about 10 minutes after the game ended. Whatever might happen over the next week, Miller has enjoyed his 12 years in Buffalo. "I love this area. The fans have always been great," he said. "If it happens that Im traded, Im preparing to play somewhere else. It all just comes to its going to be hockey." NOTES: Sabres LW Matt Moulson (upper body) returned to the Sabres lineup after missing four games before the break. Also back was Buffalo C Cody McCormick, who missed 24 games with an upper-body injury. ... Buffalo also snapped an eight game home losing streak, during which it had gone 0-5-3. ... As a result of the rescheduled game, the Hurricanes opened a five-game road trip, their longest of the season. ' ' '
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