Columnist image
Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

|Archive

TORONTO – Remember the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors?

After months of anticipation and weeks of preparation in the league’s Disney bubble, the team finally made its long-awaited return to the court this past weekend, playing in three scrimmage games ahead of the upcoming restart.

With wins over Houston (94-83 on Friday) and Portland (110-104 on Sunday) and a loss to Phoenix (117-106 on Tuesday), the Raptors went 2-1 in exhibition play.

Take that, and just about everything else to come out of the tune-ups, with a grain of salt. Given the lengthy layoff and how little was actually on the line in these contests, their top priorities were as follows: start to get everybody back into game shape, and keep them all healthy. For the most part, they accomplished both.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to glean from our first look at the defending champs in more than four months. Here are five of the biggest takeaways from Toronto’s scrimmage slate.

They’re back.

The games didn’t count but that doesn’t matter. First and foremost, it was just nice to see the Raptors on our screens again after all this time.

Apart from some expected rust and understandable stretches of disinterest, there were also moments when they looked like their old selves – when their second-ranked defence was tied together and the ball was swinging from side to side offensively.

Even in such a small sample, those flashes were a good reminder of what made them so successful prior to the hiatus. Now that they’re healthier than they’ve been since way back in October, there is obvious cause for excitement.

“I feel good about where we are,” head coach Nick Nurse said following his team’s final scrimmage on Tuesday. “It's got a good feel to it right now, and a few more days will go by, and we'll start playing some games with a little more meaning, and we'll continue to develop. I keep saying we've got a ceiling we haven't hit yet. So I'm excited to see this team continue to grow upwards.”

The Raptors are a fun team comprised of interesting and diverse personalities that has brought a lot of joy to a lot of people over the past 14 months or so. The return of basketball shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the bigger issues that are going on in the world – the ongoing fight for social justice, the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic – but hopefully it can help brighten some peoples’ lives during these hard times.

The vets haven’t lost a step

Historically, it usually takes Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka some time to ramp things up and get back into rhythm after extended stretches away from the game – following an injury or in training camp each fall, for instance.

After four months off – and much of that time spent in isolation, unable to get in the gym – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them struggle early. Instead, both veterans picked up where the left off before the shutdown in March.

Logging 22 minutes per scrimmage, Lowry averaged 11.7 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including 7-for-13 from beyond the arc. In 21 minutes, Ibaka averaged 15.0 points – leading Toronto in scoring in both of its wins – on 15-for-24 shooting and hit five of his nine three-point attempts.

Both physically and spiritually, they were in mid-season form. Lowry took four charges, dove for a loose ball and had words for the opposing bench after hitting a transition three during an unexpectedly chippy third quarter against Portland. Ibaka’s physicality was a big reason why that scrimmage became so competitive.

There was little doubt that they would be ready to go by Aug. 17 – when the playoffs are scheduled to begin – but the fact that they’ve kept themselves in such great shape and appear to be sharp right out of the gate is great news for the Raptors.

Also of note was how fluid Marc Gasol looked against Phoenix. After being held out of the first game and limited to 10 minutes in the second, the 35-year-old logged 20 on Tuesday – the most he’s played since Jan. 26, before he reinjured his hamstring.

Not only did he seem healthy, but his slimmed-down frame may be paying dividends already – he grabbed nine rebounds and blocked a couple shots.

The kids used their time off wisely

The two youngest members of Toronto’s rotation, 23-year-olds OG Anunoby and rookie Terence Davis, were among the team’s standouts this past week.

Davis came off the bench to score in double figures in each of the first two scrimmages, while Anunoby flashed his expanded offensive skill set.

They’ve both spoken about using the hiatus to study and work on specific areas of their game, with Davis focusing on his decision making as a secondary ball handler and Anunoby looking to become more of a threat off the dribble. For the first few months of the pandemic that meant watching and analyzing themselves on film. Recently, they’ve been able to work with an assistant coach or two in a socially distanced gym. However, the results are already coming through.

Davis, who’s play was starting to fall off a bit back in March, has looked refreshed and refocused coming into the restart. With Patrick McCaw battling an undisclosed injury, the rookie guard has an opportunity to run away with eighth-man minutes in Nurse’s rotation and could make an impact for Toronto in the playoffs.

Already an elite one-on-one perimeter defender, Anunoby’s growth on the offensive end may have been the biggest development of the scrimmages. He’s proven he can knock down open threes – something he’ll need to do in the postseason – but if he can also put the ball on the floor, attack the rim and reliably make plays for his teammates, he becomes a far more dangerous player and the Raptors become a far more dangerous team.

The atmosphere will take some getting used to

These games will be strange, and not just for the viewing audience, who will have to get accustomed to digital on-court graphics, virtual fans and other unusual gimmicks the NBA plans to experiment with.

The Raptors have gotten their first taste of playing in a relatively quiet, fanless gym, and the results are mixed. There are pros and cons, as Nurse recently pointed out. While he’s been reluctant to call out plays as he normally would, knowing the other team can hear them, he also appreciates being able to communicate without shouting over the music or the crowd during timeouts.

“When it comes to basketball, it’s pretty pure,” Gasol said. “You can hear everything. You can communicate easily with all your teammates and so it has its good things too – during a timeout you can hear everything really clear. Obviously it’s not the same. You don’t have 20,000 people inside the building cheering for you and pushing you every possession. But we have all the guys in our corner, on our bench, to create that energy and positive attitude and support our teammates.”

Nurse has joked that he may need to start wearing a hat so he can use hand signals to communicate like a baseball manager. The team has been using a numerical system to call out plays and Nurse said they’ve been thinking of some other ways they can tailor their communication to this new environment.

“It will be different, and there will be some changes,” Nurse said on Thursday. “With the atmosphere at these games, there’s a sense [you may have to be] quieter as a communicator, because everyone in the whole gym can hear everything you’re saying. So, I don’t know. I kind of [got] to a point where I didn’t say much in the first three scrimmages. I think I’ll just have to do what I have to do, whether people hear it or not, because I’ll be in there competing.

“So I imagine people are going to hear a lot of things they’ve never heard from a coach before or in a competitive situation. But that’s just the way it’s going to be. We’re going to miss our fans and the electricity outside the arena too. But hopefully everyone is going to be watching and cheering, and we’ll feel them somehow anyway.”

They’re ready for the real thing

“I’m glad there [aren’t] any more of these [scrimmages],” Nurse joked, saying what was on everybody’s mind after watching the Raptors’ lackadaisical effort in defeat on Tuesday.

As Nurse rightly pointed out afterwards, his team just wasn’t engaged. With all due respect to Phoenix – a young team that played well – the Raptors looked like a veteran club playing in their final scrimmage on a Tuesday afternoon, and they seemed a little bored.

They may have also been looking ahead to Saturday night, when they’ll face LeBron James and the Lakers in their first meaningful basketball game since March 9.

Expect a slow build leading up to the playoffs. The Raptors are experienced enough and savvy enough to know what’s needed from them and when. They don’t have to be at their best next week or the week after. They can use these eight seeding games to experiment with different lineups, manage the workloads of their rotation players and make sure that they’re prepared to peak at the right time.

They got everything they needed to from their tune-up games. Now, they’re ready for the next step.

“I think it's going to be a process and obviously we feel like everyone is ready mentally and physically to go out there and play,” said Pascal Siakam. “I just feel like it's going to take a little bit for us to be at our best, but I like where we are right now, and we're going to continue to get better.”

“A lot of it feels like it’s kind of there already,” Nurse said. “And when the stakes go up, the intensity should go up and we’ve got to be able to do that. It’s not like we haven’t been through it.”