Masai Ujiri took one look at the Toronto Raptors' early-season schedule, cringed, and then never looked at it again.
It isn't pretty.
The Raptors open the regular season Wednesday night against the visiting Boston Celtics, and will do anything to avoid a repeat of last season's horror show that saw them stumble out of the blocks to a 4-19 start.
But it won't be easy. Among Toronto's early opponents: two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat, plus Houston, Memphis, Chicago and Brooklyn.
"It's challenging," said Ujiri, who surely wouldn't mind a strong start to his first season as Toronto's general manager. "But you know what? I think it was Larry Bird who said, you check the schedule, 41 at home, 41 away. It's even. We have to play, doesn't matter how tough it is."
The Raptors went .500 over the second half of the 2012-13 campaign, but it wasn't enough to salvage the season.
"We definitely remember that start. I remember it, and I wasn't even here," Rudy Gay said, laughing. "We definitely have that in the back our minds."
Coach Dwane Casey — who many believe was lucky to survive that horrible start — said the schedule isn't as brutal as it was last year, but it's still "no joke."
But he's taking the approach that the tough early schedule could be good for the team.
"We have to be mentally prepared to face adversity, that's a part of being mentally tough is facing adversity and looking it in the eye and accepting it and accepting the challenge," he said.
Casey conjured the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks as a reference. The Mavs staggered through an ugly stretch that season, winning just three in a 13-game span. Casey was an assistant coach on that team that went on to win the 2011 NBA title.
"We definitely weren't thinking playoffs, thinking about a championship," Casey said. "But again we faced adversity and fought through it. If you want to be a winning team, you have to fight through something, you have to go through something, and that's the challenge of our young team."
Five returning starters
Casey believes his team has what it takes to avoid an ugly start. For one, there's a sense of familiarity that it didn't have last season when three of the five starters were new. This year, all five starters are returnees — Gay, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.
"The togetherness we have, the familiarity," he said, adding "JV's not a rookie, we have Rudy coming in going through training camp, Kyle's not coming in new, so the familiarity helps so much in that situation."
Casey said the chemistry is better than it was in his previous two seasons in Toronto. When someone pointed out that it appeared Lowry, Gay and DeRozan had problems playing together last season, Casey said: "They're just like brothers, they go at each other but they're best friends, they would fight for each other, and I think that's probably what you saw."
"The [starting] group is pretty well tied together, chemistry defensively, chemistry offensively. Now we've got to do it when the popcorn is popping."
Gay, who is co-captain this season with DeRozan, has had the benefit of his first training camp with Toronto, and said there's definitely been an improvement in cohesiveness. He said there's still room for improvement — although he had a difficult time articulating that.
"I think we can still grow together a little bit more," Gay said. "We've gotten a lot better since last year as a team, and I think as we play this year, we'll be a lot more … a lot better … even more … Even better.
"I did drop out of college," he added, prompting much laughter.
Experience with a tough early schedule
Ujiri said the fact the Raptors are no strangers to ugly schedules should help.
"I haven't heard one player complain about the schedule, so for me, I think it was almost like they expected it," Ujiri said. "Nobody has said 'Wow, that's crazy.' They're ready to go and ready to play and I think that's the right attitude for that. It will all even out, but it's clear when you have a schedule like that you have to do well at least to a certain extent to survive the rest of the way."
Ujiri has talked about changing the culture of the Raptors this season. When asked to describe the team's identity, the GM and his coach invariably say it's about "toughness."
"We have to be a team that competes, that scraps, that fights," Casey said, on the goals he's jotted down for the season. "We're not going to out-talent anyone, we're not going to just go out and jack up threes over anyone. We've got to outscrap and outfight anybody we go against. That's what I've got written down on a piece of paper in my mind."
Following the season opener at the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors head out for their first back-to-back on the road, playing the Hawks in Atlanta on Friday, then the Bucks in Milwaukee on Saturday. They're back home to host the defending NBA champion Heat next Tuesday.