TORONTO — With their run to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last spring, Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry received a detailed education in playoff basketball. En route to gold at the Summer Olympics in Rio, Toronto’s All-Star teammates got what coach Dwane Casey considers “the best graduate course they could take.”
Now, as a new season approaches, DeRozan and Lowry hope they’ll get a shot to finish at the top of the NBA heap and earn that coveted class ring.
“Me personally, I think it’s time,” Lowry said as Toronto opened training camp Monday. “I want a ring, I want to win a championship.”
Five years after going 22-60, the Raptors won a franchise-record 56 games last season and captured their third straight Atlantic Division title. They advanced in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 with a Game 7 victory over Indiana, then pushed past Miami in another Game 7 to reach the conference finals, winning Games 3 and 4 at home to even things up with eventual champion Cleveland.
“It taught us a lot about our basketball abilities,” Lowry said of the deepest postseason run in Raptors history. “It taught us the mental capacity we have to have, the physical strength and the body maintenance we have to have. It taught us a whole lot and it definitely prepared us for the upcoming season. Rio actually helped us even more. I know (DeMar) feels really good about his game and the level he’s playing at, and I feel good about the level I’m playing at.
“It’s never being satisfied with ‘OK, we did this.’ What’s next? We’ve got to find it. We’ve got to figure out what’s next and get to that next level.”
Besides his gold medal, DeRozan earned further riches with the five-year, $139 million deal he signed to stay in Toronto without testing the free-agent market. But all summer long, armed with his new understanding of the playoff “blueprint,” DeRozan burned to get back to work in Toronto.
“As crazy as it sounds, even during the Olympics as we were playing and practicing, at the same time I was working toward this season, understanding what I need to do to get better,” DeRozan said. “Working on my body, working on everything that needs to be done for me to be able to withstand another long season and get back to the point we were at. It was great having my teammate there at the same time and being able to talk about what we need to do to be better.”
Casey, who received a three-year, $18 million extension this offseason, continues to be impressed with the maturation of his two main stars.
“They’re growing up,” Casey said. “They’re men now. I can just see the confidence over the past few years, not just last year, of them establishing themselves as two of the top players in the league, establishing this team. No longer do they have to go out and prove that they’re two of the top players.”
Both Lowry and DeRozan struggled offensively at times during the playoffs, but each battled through tough stretches to provide key performances later on. Their “will to win” impressed forward Jared Sullinger when the Raptors came calling in free agency.
“These guys didn’t care about stats,” said Sullinger, who left Boston for a one-year deal with Toronto. “What they cared about was winning and they found a way to win every freaking night. That’s what separates them from a lot of the teams that went out and tried to get me.”
Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who signed off on Toronto’s summer spending, considered it necessary after watching several conference rivals swap stars and restock rosters.
“The East got better,” Ujiri said. “People talk about the West and talk about the West. Well, the East is creeping up now. We recognize that it’s going to be harder.”