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Raptors ready for a season-opener unlike any other after a year spent south of border

TORONTO — Nick Nurse says he can always feel a buzz in the air a couple of days out from a Raptors home game in Toronto — an agreeable hum the coach hasn't felt in nearly two years.

TORONTO — Nick Nurse says he can always feel a buzz in the air a couple of days out from a Raptors home game in Toronto — an agreeable hum the coach hasn't felt in nearly two years.

The Raptors host the Washington Wizards on Wednesday to tip off a season that's different in so many ways. Longtime leader Kyle Lowry is gone. There's no superstar like Kawhi Leonard. And the team is back on this side of the border, home — finally — after COVID-19 protocols forced the Raptors to call Tampa, Fla. "home" last season.

It was a poor substitute to home. 

The key Wednesday, Nurse said, is to not let the excitement of the moment get the best of his team.

"I love it," Nurse said Monday about the pre-game energy. "You can already feel it in the streets, you know? 

"Obviously it's going to be electric in (Scotiabank Arena). Everybody probably realizes the fans are going to be super amped up. And I think from my seat, we've got to make sure that we use a little bit of that electricity but we don't get carried away with it ourselves ... play with some type of composure and ... we focus in on the basketball part of it for sure."

The Raptors last played a regular-season game at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 28, 2020, a forgettable loss to Charlotte, and then the global pandemic shuttered the sports world and eventually sent the Raptors to Tampa. Last season was one of their worst in franchise history, with a COVID-19 outbreak in March that saw them somersault down the Eastern Conference standings. Toronto finished 12th in the East (27-45).

Only four players — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher — remain from that roster. 

Lowry departed for Miami in a sign-and-trade deal this past off-season. The Raptors lost Leonard in free agency in 2019. 

But if expectations for this rebuilding Toronto roster are low for this season, VanVleet never got the memo.

"The goal is to win a championship every year," VanVleet said. "I'm certainly not going to lower my standards. I don't care who's on the team."

VanVleet, who will shoulder much of the leadership load in Lowry's wake, recounted a quote he'd read.

"'There's things that have never been done (before) done every day,'" he said. "I'm up for the challenge, I think the team is ready for the challenge. We have a young, hungry group that are looking to prove themselves."

Young indeed. While veteran guard Goran Dragic, who arrived in Toronto via the deal that sent Lowry to Miami, is the oldest at 35, team leaders VanVleet and Siakam are just 27. Anunoby, whose excellent pre-season hinted that he's primed for a breakout year, is just 24. Energetic rookie Scottie Barnes, selected by Toronto with the No. 4 draft pick, is just 20. 

"(I'll) just keep bringing that young energy every single day into that locker-room and try to just keep having fun no matter what it is," said Barnes, who's quickly become a Raptors fan favourite. 

"I know it's gonna be a long season, something that I’ve never been through before, but just keep trying to bring that positive energy. If people are tired, me having those young legs, just keep running, it takes pressure off them to just be able to throw the ball up the floor or I just make easy transition buckets that help us sustain the lead and stuff like that. So that's just what I plan to do."

Add in young dynamic players like Precious Achiuwa and Toronto native Dalano Banton and the Raptors will be fun to watch if nothing else. They're long and athletic and can run for days.

"I guess it's a little bit different, more wings this year," Anunoby said. "We switch more actions this year, everyone's interchangeable now, we all learn every spot. They make sure everyone knows everything, we haven’t done that in the past. Everyone can bring the ball up."

The Raptors plunged from second in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions to 15th last season. The roster rebuild — Barnes, as just one example, is dogged on the defensive end — lends itself to better defence this season.   

"There's way more ability for us to look people in the eye and guard them this year, whether they're young or not young, we just got a lot better matchup versatility and a lot more bodies that can go out there and look people in the eye," Nurse said.

Whether or not the newness of this group has increased Nurse's workload, he's enjoying it.

"This group is really fun," he said. "We're doing a lot of different things. I think that's always fun, as well."

Anunoby said the chemistry among the team is already excellent after a season of COVID-19 restrictions that limited what they could do together.

“It does translate (chemistry on the floor)," Anunoby said. "We liked each other last year, too. But just because of all the protocols, we couldn’t go to dinners. We couldn’t hang out outside of practice.

"We've had dinners and stuff. It's been fun. It’s nice to have lighter rules. I think it’s just a good group of guys. Everybody gets along. No one's a jerk."

The Raptors will have a full house at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday after they got the green light from Ontario's government to increase their capacity. Fans must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test upon entry.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press