Raptors eye tighter defense, with DeMarre Carroll assist

TORONTO (AP) After the Toronto Raptors got swept out of the first round of the playoffs last spring, coach Dwane Casey knew he needed to stiffen his team’s defensive spine.

”Guys were trying defensively, but I don’t know if we had the skill level,” Casey said. ”We ended up winning games from the offensive side of the ball, which will get you beat in the playoffs, as it did to us.”

In adding free agent DeMarre Carroll, the Raptors didn’t just get a defensive jolt, but an offensive one, too.

A strong defender and outside shooting threat, Carroll helped the Atlanta Hawks to a franchise-high 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs last season.

”He gives us one guy we can put on one player and say `Hey, go stop him,”’ Casey said. ”We don’t have to double-team, we don’t have to blitz. You’ve got that guy, one-on-one. He kind of sets the tone for us defensively.

”He’s an excellent 3-point shooter as well as an elite defender, and that’s rare to find in this league,” Casey said.

Carroll, who averaged 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in 70 games with Atlanta, was touted as one of the top players available at his position. He signed a four-year deal worth $60 million.

Carroll said his ”main objective” this season is to establish himself as one of the premier two-way players in the NBA, a goal he’s been inching toward after a difficult start to his professional life.

”I feel like I wasted four years of my career from when I got drafted, two years not playing and then getting waived two years (in a row),” Carroll said. ”The last two or three years I finally broke through that ice. I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to keep putting my career on the rise, a great opportunity for me to go out and show people who DeMarre Carroll really is.”

Some other things to watch with the Raptors this season:

DIVISION DIMINISHED: Back-to-back champions in the weak Atlantic Division, the Raptors have earned a top-half seeding in each of the past two years. That’s no longer guaranteed because of rule changes in which the eight playoff teams in each conference are seeded by regular-season record. Even if they win a third straight division crown this season, the Raptors could be on a tricky path through the postseason.

STAR TURN: Toronto will host the NBA All-Star Game for the first time. The Feb. 14 game will mark the first time the showcase will be played outside the United States. It’s also the first All-Star game in any sport to visit Canada’s biggest city since the NHL held its midseason event there in 2000. Baseball’s Blue Jays hosted their only All-Star game in 1991.

CANADIAN CLUB: The Raptors signed free-agent point guard Cory Joseph to a $30 million, four-year contract, then added former first-overall pick Anthony Bennett after the third-year forward was waived by Minnesota on the eve of training camp. Bennett and Joseph were born in Toronto and grew up in the city’s suburbs. It’s the first time in their 21 years the Raptors have had two Canadian players on the roster at the same time.

STYLE POINTS: Besides their personnel changes, the Raptors will have a different look. They’ve got new logo, a stylized basketball with a dinosaur claw on one side, and new-look uniforms, including a black-and gold alternate inspired by Grammy-winning rapper Drake, the team’s global ambassador. Toronto will still wear white with red trim at home and red with black trim on the road. While the old road jerseys had `Toronto’ on the front, all the new jerseys have `Raptors’ instead.

STACKED: Two-time NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse joined Casey’s staff as an assistant this summer. The 18-year veteran, who retired after the 2012-13 season, has made an immediate impact on Joseph, who grew up watching Stackhouse play. ”It’s just great to hear his views and experiences,” Joseph said. ”Learning from him has been amazing.”