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Early games against Warriors, Spurs to put Raptors' 'culture reset' to the test


TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors are about to find out if their culture reset has been successful.

A second-round sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year's playoffs painted a potentially bleak future for the Raptors. The NBA was trending toward a different style — fast-paced, free-flowing, three-point shooting — and the Raptors were being left behind.

But rather than overhaul the roster, the team revamped its offence. 

Ideally, ball movement and three-point shooting will replace one-on-one play. The Raptors showed glimpses of it in the pre-season, the ball whipping around through a free-flowing offence. Perfected by teams such as Golden State and San Antonio, it's a style that difficult to defend, and tough to scout. Teams can befuddle opponents with their offensive imagination.

"(If) I don't know where the ball is going, damn sure the defence is not going to know where it's going," coach Dwane Casey said. "(As) long as it doesn't go in the third row up in the stands, we'll be OK."

The Raptors open the regular season Thursday when they host the Chicago Bulls at the Air Canada Centre, then are home to Philadelphia on Saturday. Then they head west for not only their longest road trip of the season, but an immediate test of their new style. They face San Antonio and Golden State in their third and fourth games of the season.

The Raptors were last in the league in assists last season at 18.5 a game, barely half that of league-leading Warriors' 30.4. They were also in the bottom third in three-point shots attempted, at 24.3 per game.  

The end result was a 51-win season and a second-round exit at the hands of Cleveland, which clobbered Toronto with a flurry of three-point shots. It wasn't nearly good enough for president Masai Ujiri, who spoke of the need for a "culture reset" when the team headed into the summer.

"It's a fun way to play," Casey said of the style makeover. "That's the way the game is going, it's harder to scout. The game is so sophisticated now that teams scout you so well they know exactly what you're going to do before you even get the rest of the sentence out of your mouth as a coach.

"This style, the way we want to go, is hard to prepare for. (Opponents) can't help on Kyle (Lowry), they can't help on DeMar (DeRozan), they can't double-team them as quickly. They'll figure it out eventually but it'll take them a little while if they don't know where the ball is going."

Ujiri retained the team's core, re-signing Lowry to a three-year deal in the off-season worth US$100 million, and Serge Ibaka to a three-year deal worth $65 million.

The Raptors acquired Ibaka at last season's trade deadline but the big man barely had time to develop any chemistry with Lowry before the playoffs. Lowry missed 21 games after wrist surgery and returned just before the post-season.

"It's going to be big," DeRozan said, on having time to work with Ibaka. "It was tough when we made the trade last year ... we're trying to get things going, the trade happens, we've just got to jump right in and play. Kyle gets back and we've got to try and figure out how to play with a whole new starting lineup — it was tough.

"This time around, being able to really lock in from ground zero and understand step by step how we're going to play, how we're going to execute, really building that chemistry."

The Raptors acquired sniper C.J. Miles, signing the three-point specialist to a three-year, $25 million contract, and if the pre-season is a good indication, the move will pay dividends. Miles had 27 points, including six threes, in Toronto's 125-104 win over Chicago in the pre-season finale.

The Raptors attempted an average of 43 threes a night in the pre-season, second only to the Houston Rockets (49). Now Casey has to hope the shots start falling — the team's 32.6 per cent three-point shooting in the pre-season ranked them second last in the league.

Ujiri also took rookie OG Anunoby 23rd overall in what he and Casey believe was one of the biggest steals of the NBA draft. The Indiana product plummeted down the draft after a torn anterior cruciate ligament cut short his college career.

Gone from last season's roster are Canadian point guard Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll.

The Raptors face a gruelling start to the season. They play nine of their first 14 games on the road.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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