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It’s Time to Play…

It’s been eight months since the last time we had an actual Raptors basketball game to write about, discuss, debate or obsess over. But alas, after a long off-season that included a five-month lockout that wiped out nearly 20 per cent of the NBA season, that day has finally come.

Yes, it’s just a pre-season game against a Celtics team that might be without Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, and will definitely be without the services of Jeff Green (Side-note, thoughts and prayers go out to Green. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery), but none the less, it’s going to be the first glimpse of the Raptors’ new identity under Dwane Casey.

We’ll see just how quickly the young Raps are buying into mottos like “Pound the Rock” and “Guard Your Yard.” It will be interesting to see how rusty both teams are, and how far they are from mid-season form. Remember, each of these teams gets just two games to prepare for the helter skelter regular season that starts next weekend.

Given that it is just a pre-season game, I don’t want to waste too much time previewing the game itself. In all honesty, it’s not worth it. What I do want to discuss is the potential starting lineup and overall rotation that we might see on Sunday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre.

If you’ve listened to any of Dwane Casey’s scrums from training camp, he’s certainly given us some hints.

Point Guard: Casey has stated that while nothing is set in stone, he feels that Jose Calderon works better as a starting point guard and Jerryd Bayless is a great option off of the bench. He’s also discussed how Anthony Carter usually starts as the third point guard wherever he goes, and slowly works his way up the depth chart. Most of us could have guessed this. Jose will likely start, Bayless will be the official backup PG and Carter will be there to hopefully push both of them.

Shooting Guard: Casey hasn’t said much, and he doesn’t need to. This is a no-brainer, DeMar DeRozan starts.

Small Forward: Casey said that James Johnson has been the best small forward in camp, but also gave Rasual Butler some praise. I’m guessing that for the first pre-season game, Johnson starts, with Butler getting the first chance to replace him off the bench. I’m assuming Gary Forbes will play his way into more minutes as the season progresses. Both Butler and Forbes can play either the two or the three, so there should be plenty of opportunities for each.

Power Forward: We all imagine Bargnani’s name being announced with the starters, but based on the rave reviews we’ve been hearing about Ed Davis‘ camp, would anyone really be shocked to see Ed get the start? I doubt it will happen, but I’m not ready to rule it out completely. One thing you have to wonder is where Amir Johnson fits in. We’ve heard a lot about Bargs and Davis, but other than some updates on his solid recovery from ankle surgery or his improving mid-range jumper, it’s been quiet on the Amir front. I’m sure they’ll find minutes for him somewhere.

Centre: This is where it really gets interesting to me. Casey said this week that the plan is to have Bargnani and Davis play their natural power forward positions as often as possible (again, no mention of Amir). I think we can all but rule out Solomon Alabi from the rotation, let alone the starting lineup. That leaves Jamaal Magloire and Aaron Gray as possible starters at the five. Based on his veteran defensive presence and the PR boost of starting him in his first game as a Raptor, I think we’ll see Magloire get the start against the Celtics. If he holds his own in the two pre-season games, I can also see the Raptors starting Magloire in the regular season to set the tone early in games. I don’t think he’s going to get a lot of minutes, but I can easily see him starting.

So based on Casey’s comments throughout the week and my instincts, I think we’ll see a starting lineup of Calderon, DeRozan, James Johnson, Bargnani and Magloire, with Bayless, Davis and Amir getting the majority of minutes off the pine.

Another important point from Casey’s scrums is that he’s stated he wants to eventually narrow down his rotation to eight-to-10 guys. We’ve already listed eight players above, which means guys like Leandro Barbosa, Gary Forbes, Rasual Butler, Aaron Gray, Anthony Carter, Solomon Alabi and even Linas Kleiza when he gets back, will have to fight tooth and nail for every minute. And that’s the way it should be.

Another thing to keep an eye on is the seats in the ACC, as in, filled or empty. Pre-season Raptors games are never sellouts, but in the past, the first home pre-season game has had at least respectable attendance. If Sunday’s game looks pathetically empty, it might be a bad sign for attendance this season, especially since season seat holders were offered two complimentary tickets to the game.

I’ll post my impressions of the first pre-season game some time later on Sunday, and will revisit what the rotation looks like sometime between the second pre-season game and the regular season opener in Cleveland.

That’s it for now.

Enjoy the game.

While we’ve all been dialed in on Lithuania and Jonas Valanciunas, Andrea Bargnani has been growing out a beard and doing some things. For example:

Yes. I’m as pleasantly surprised as you. Bargs throwing it down on Boris Diaw. Bargnani continued to play well for Italy, finishing with a game-high 22 points to go with five rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot. Unfortunately for Bargnani, Italy ended up losing the game against France, 91-84. Still, an aggressive Bargnani is always a beautiful sight for Raptors fans. #FearTheBeard Bargnani style. It works.

(h/t to @outsidethenba for the sweet vid)

We’ve talked with DeMar DeRozan on summer training and on the lockout, now we’ve got DeRozan talking about the greatest love of his life. Yep, this beautiful game that has us all under a spell. While most guys who are playing professional basketball recognize how lucky they are and also enjoy it, there are those that really, truly and completely obsessed with this game. These are the players you want on your team. They’re the ones who work for the ridiculous amounts of money they’re paid and they are the ones who make you feel good about rooting for them, regardless of the wins and losses.

They spend hours in the gym, more hours in the weight room and then time in front of a tv watching tape, asking questions and also taking criticisms to get better at the game that we all love. I spoke with DeRozan about the game. Not the fame and the money and the hype, but the passion and appreciation he has for basketball and all it has given him and his family.

I’m glad he gets it. It’ll serve him well throughout his career. It also makes it extremely easy to root for him.

HM: How does the lockout affect how you approach to training this summer?

DD: I’ve been approaching it the same way I would any other summer. Just trying to do different stuff. Playing more open runs. I usually do playing with pros, find somewhere to pro. Just try to stay playing basketball as much as I can.

HM: What do you think it says when guys show up to play streetball games? Is that a way to show your appreciation for the game?

DD: I think it’s shown through the summer, especially the past month, everyone in the Drew League, Kevin Durant at Rucker Park, the Goodman League, the leagues in Seattle, just everywhere. Pros are out playing against guys and I think it’s a cool thing. For the fans, some of them are still able to see us working on our games, working against other guys. I love playing. I don’t care who it’s against.

HM: For you, what’s it like playing in the Drew League after growing up in L.A. and watching guys play every summer?

DD: That’s definitely cool. I feel like I’m back in high school again. Just being out there and playing in front of the fans. They get to see players they never get to see in person without paying a lot of money. That’s the good thing about it. That’s been a big positive for us. It really shows the love for the game and how much the game of basketball means to all of us.

HM: Is it fun to get to play in front of some of the same people who have watched you play since high school and have watched you grow into the player you are today?

DD: It’s nuts. It’s something else. It’s definitely a cool thing, man. Especially…I’ve been playing in it since the eighth grade. Seeing all the pros playing in it, people coming out to support it every week. So many guys, that’s so big. It feels good being a part of it. Being able to show that NBA players can go anywhere and play. It doesn’t have to be a fancy arena.

HM: So you were always the kid at the gym watching the older guys play?

DD: I always used to go watch. I always remember Baron Davis playing, a lot of pros. I started playing when I was in the eighth or ninth grade and ever since then I’ve been playing in it.

HM: And now you’re playing with Baron.

DD: It’s definitely strange. It still trips me out to this day. Just to realize how far I’ve come with the game of basketball, it’s definitely a blessing.

HM: When you stop and think about everything the game has given you, the life it has allowed for you, your family and all of the people you love, what is that like?

DD: Oh yeah. I think about that every single day. It’s something special with the game, what any sport can do for somebody. How far it can take you, the opportunity it can give you in life. I think a lot of people don’t really realize that. If you’re good at it, it can take you so far. It’s not just for you, it’s for your family, your friends, for everybody. You’re making a difference in a lot of people’s lives. That’s definitely a blessing.

HM: What’s it like for you when you’re able to bring your family to Toronto during the season and they get to watch you living your dream, after you’ve all worked for it for so long?

DD: Man. It’s definitely crazy. Your family with your jerseys on, cheering for you? It’s definitely something special. It’s something you can’t put into words. When you go out there in front of thousands of people and your family is out there watching and you’re on tv playing, it’s mindboggling. It’s a dream come true, still.

HM: Will your parents ever call or text or critique you after your games?

DD: I could have the best game ever and my dad still criticizes me. That’s just my dad. He always wants me to be better than my last game. I could be better than ever and he is always going to be hard on me. He’s the reason why I’m the type of player I am today and my Mom? My mom always calls me if something happens. If I get hurt or fall or something, she always calls me after the game to make sure I’m alright, telling me to make sure nobody hits me again.

HM: Some guys say they don’t watch a lot of basketball during the season…You call yourself a junkie. Are you a big fan of watching other NBA teams and players on the days you’re not playing yourself?

DD: I’m not good with a day without basketball or doing something basketball wise. Watching it, NBA, WNBA, whatever it is. My life is surrounded by basketball.

Here’s hoping he gets to play some basketball games that matter sooner than later.

Rasho Nesterovic

If you looked up a defintion of “underrated NBA player” throughout the 2000s, you would probably see a picture of Shane Battier. But if you looked closely at that picture, you would see that Battier was holding a picture of Rasho Nesterovic. Rasho announced his retirement today, without fanfare — would you have expected anything else from him?

“I believe my basketball career has ended. It’s enough. I’ve had a 17-years-long professional basketball career. My latest injury has nothing to do with this decision. This was a personal decision. Basically I can’t function as I did in the past, anymore. If I can’t be at my 100 percent as a player, I would rather do something else at the fullest.”

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We posted the first part of our convo with DeMar DeRozan on Friday afternoon. While that part was about looking back on last season, this one is about the L-word. No, not love or like or anything nice, I’m talking about this damn lockout. Here’s DeRozan on the possibility of going overseas, why the rookies are really losing out and when he realized that he’d be without his best friend when/if the lockout ends this season.

HM: So, about this lockout, have you talked to anyone for advice?

DD: I talked to a few guys and they just prepared me, telling me what to do, how to prepare. Hopefully it turns out for the best, but just be prepared for the worst at the end of the day. A lot of players that had been through it before.

HM: Have you spoken with anyone besides NBA vets about the situation?

DD: Coaches, old coaches. Even the fans, a lot of older guys who had been through the lockout, not necessarily players, people who remembered the lockout in ’99, when it took place. Cuttino Mobley has actually been talking me through it a lot. He’s been giving me a lot of advice and everything.

HM: What’s the main thing they tell you?

DD: Save your money.

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