By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Before the start of a new NBA campaign on Tuesday the Toronto Raptors and their fans spent the final few moments before tip-off basking in last season's glory by unfurling a championship banner and collecting diamond encrusted rings.
Then they went to work.
The Raptors needed to put in overtime to see off the New Orleans Pelicans 130-122 but the result was enough to keep the party rolling a little while longer.
Rarely in sport has so little been expected from a team that just four months ago accomplished so much, bringing an NBA championship to Canada for the first time.
In June nearly 2 million fans clogged Toronto streets for a victory parade but on Tuesday, as the banner was hoisted to the rafters, few hopes were being raised along with it.
"One last nice celebration for everybody," summed up Raptors coach Nick Nurse. "I think it is cool to have that piece of history certainly for this generation and for the next generation that every time they come in to a game or event and they are going to look up and see that (banner)."
There is little talk of a championship repeat in the NBA's most northern outpost, in a matter of weeks fans have lowered the bar and their expectations to the point where simply making the playoffs would be an acceptable result.
Many oddsmakers have set the defending champions a 30-1 longshot to retain their crown with a dozen or more teams ranked ahead of them.
That is what happens in the NBA when a team loses its best player like Toronto did when finals MVP Kawhi Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.
With Leonard on board the Clippers are now the oddsmakers choice.
What Toronto has been left with is a good team.
But in the NBA good teams are not good enough. If a team is to contend they need a great player. Or two.
When Leonard agreed to sign with the Clippers it was only after they had acquired fellow all-star Paul George.
That came after Anthony Davis decided to partner up with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers while the Houston Rockets landed Russell Westbrook to go with James Harden.
"I don't really like to live with a chip on my shoulder I just flip it and say it is more of a chance to prove ourselves," said Nurse. "I see this as a tremendous opportunity for our organization, our coaching staff, for a lot of players.
"I keep saying there are some really special guys on this team."
Not participating in the free agent musical chairs, the Raptors instead decided to spend their money rewarding Pascal Siakam, the NBA's most improved player award winner, with a four-year, $130 million contract extension.
While the lanky 25-year-old Cameroonian, who only seriously started playing basketball eight years ago, has shown plenty of upside, the Raptors are still gambling he can blossom into a top drawer player.
Siakam has taken on the assignment with gusto and a smile finishing the opener with 34 points and 18 rebounds before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.
"He (Siakam) was carrying us there for lots of stretches," assessed Nurse. "We had to go to him time-and-time again there in stretches and he produced."
(Editing by Christian Schmollinger)