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"Tampa Bay Raptaneers" set to tip off bizarre regular season against Pelicans

Before team president Masai Ujiri placed the lucky toonie in the Raptors' new practice floor, the team president held it aloft and said: "This is for the Tampa Bay Raptaneers.

Before team president Masai Ujiri placed the lucky toonie in the Raptors' new practice floor, the team president held it aloft and said: "This is for the Tampa Bay Raptaneers." 

The joke was a reference to Toronto's temporary NFL neighbours, the Buccaneers. And it said plenty about the bizarre season the Raptors are about to begin.

The Raptors host New Orleans on Wednesday to tip off a new season. Any other year, Kyle Lowry and a new-look lineup would dominate the storylines. But this isn't any other year.

Due to Canada's travel restrictions around COVID-19, the Raptors are forced to play at least the first half of a 72-game schedule in Tampa, Fla. The Raptors have tried to make the city on Florida's west coast feel like home, building a new practice facility in in a downtown Marriott, and hanging the team's 2019 NBA championship banner from the rafters of Amalie Arena alongside Lightning star Vincent Lacavalier's retired jersey.

A year after more than 20,000 fans celebrated the Raptors' NBA championship ring ceremony on opening night at Scotiabank Arena, a limited crowd of 3,800 fans will be at Amalie for Wednesday's opener because of COVID-19 protocols.

"I understand what goes into making this thing work . . . I think everything is in place to ensure that we can be as safe as possible," Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. 

"It was a little weird (during the pre-season) being back in front of fans for the first time in a while but I think we'll all get used to the weirdness of this year quickly."

The global pandemic could play the big spoiler this season. For now, the league has released the schedule up to March, and the Raptors would love to move back to Toronto for the second half.

But if not?

"We want to win. We want to play basketball. So, whether we are in Naples, whether we are in a bubble in Orlando, whether we’re here, whether we’re coming back, we play sports to win. All of us believe in that," Ujiri said. 

"You are going to have adversity. You are going to have things that get in the way, but we have that mindset as an organization and I’m really proud of them for this. Wherever we are playing (the playoffs next summer) we will try our best."

On the floor, Lowry will quarterback a new-look lineup after a hectic, abbreviated free agency period saw Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol leave. Ujiri signed Aron Baynes to help replace them. 

And if the Raptors have proved anything, it's their ability to overcome player departures. Toronto had its best regular season in franchise history after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, going 53-19 with a 73.6 win percentage before the pandemic shut down last season. Boasting a defence that was second in the league, they clinched the No. 2 spot in the NBA. Nick Nurse earned coach of the year honours.

"I'm thinking we were probably in a similar-ish situation last year," Nurse said on the eve of the opener. "I don't think anybody thought super highly of our team going into last year. So, what I do know is we compete very hard and we've got a really good core group of guys that's won a lot of games and they know how to win. 

"There's a lot of specialness inside some of these guys and they certainly show that a lot of times. So I'm excited to see the ball go up for real and watch us bring out our real competitive edge that we seem to play with."

One of the most promising storylines is the play of Malachi Flynn, picked No. 29 in last month's draft. The point guard was impressive during the team's three pre-season games, but can't wait for his regular-season debut.

"Definitely," he said. "Pre-season is overrated, it doesn't count, so, the real thing starts (Wednesday) and it’s something to be excited for."

The emergence of OG Anunoby last season, particularly in the Disney bubble, was a big boost for the Raptors. Ujiri rewarded the forward on Monday with a four-year contract extension reportedly worth US$72 million. 

"He hopefully understands he can become one of the league's elite defenders," Nurse said. "I love that part of the game. It's old-school, it's like a good old-fashioned pitcher's duel in baseball or whatever. I love that part, there's a guy that can come in there and you know that's what he is, right? And then (his offence), I just think continues to develop."

A spotlight will be on Pascal Siakam this season. Shouldering the scoring load after Leonard left, he fared well for the first few months, earning his first all-star appearance. But when the league restarted in the bubble, he wilted under fierce defensive attention by opponents. Fingers pointed his direction when Toronto was eliminated by Boston in the conference semifinals.

The future of Terence Davis is also a question mark. Davis was arrested in October in New York after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. He had a virtual court appearance on Dec. 11, and has another hearing Wednesday. Nurse said he expected to have Davis in the lineup for opening night.

On the heels of hosting New Orleans, the Raptors head out on their first road trip of the regular season, playing at San Antonio on Boxing Day and Philadelphia on Dec. 29. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2020. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press