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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Don’t bother telling Kyle Lowry the game doesn’t count.

Having spent the past seven seasons coaching the famously tenacious all-star point guard – including at this year’s all-star game, where he took three charges – Nick Nurse knows it’s a futile endeavour.

“I don’t think I was very uncertain about how Kyle was going to play,” the Raptors’ head coach said following his team’s long-awaited return to the court – a 94-83 win over the Houston Rockets in a televised scrimmage from the NBA bubble on Friday night.

“He’s a guy, no matter the circumstance, he knows only one way to play. There are no fans here, [but] he’s [still] gonna play [his way]. In typical Kyle fashion, he was only going to play the first half, but he gets to halftime and wants to play some more and [I] just had to rein him in a little bit. He gets his motor going and he loves to play.”

Even after a four-month layoff, Lowry hasn’t missed a beat. The 34-year-old scored 11 points on just four shot attempts and recorded four assists in 19 minutes against the Rockets. He was in mid-season form again in Toronto’s second scrimmage, a 110-104 win over Portland on Sunday, tallying 13 points, six rebounds and four assists in 23 minutes.

Lowry has also passed the eye test. He’s already drawn a charge on James Harden. He’s thwarted Carmelo Anthony – who has eight inches and more than 40 pounds on him – in the post. He’s hit the deck fighting for a loose ball, knocked down a pull-up three in transition and disapproved of the officiating. In other words, he’s looked like himself, which is great news for the Raptors.

This is a strange time for the NBA, as teams prepare to resume the 2019-20 season at the end of the month – or, in Toronto’s case, on Aug. 1 when they face the Lakers. They’re all getting accustomed to the living conditions on the Disney campus, the many safety measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the new normal on the court of playing in a quiet gym without fans.

Lowry and the Raptors are making those adjustments, just like everybody else, but they haven’t been fazed by their new surroundings. Despite the circumstances, and even in meaningless exhibition contests, they’re carrying themselves like champions.

“We’re coming here to win the thing,” said Nurse, who was asked about Toronto’s internal expectations over the weekend. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We like our team. We think we have incredible chemistry and some toughness and great competitors, man. There are some really special players on this team that play to win each and every night, and we’re just going to see how far we can take it. And, for us, we set our goals high.”

That’s not to say that the Raptors are picking up right where they left off on March 11, when the pandemic forced the league to suspend play indefinitely, or that they’re ready for Aug. 17, when the playoffs are scheduled to begin.

You could see the rust that’s built up after so much time away from the game, and from each other, when they’ve gotten their wires crossed on defence, thrown an ill-timed pass or missed a shot – or series of shots – that they would generally knock down. They’ve given Nurse and his staff plenty of teaching moments to emphasize, to be sure.

However, there have also been stretches in the second half of each scrimmage where you could see them flip that switch in their heads, lock in on defence and exert their will on the other team.

Against Houston, it was a four-minute span to open the fourth quarter, when the Raptors’ prized second unit ripped off a quick 14-1 run to turn a three-point deficit into a commanding – and ultimately game-deciding – 10-point lead.

On Sunday, it was the starters that changed the game in the third quarter. Coming out of the halftime break, the Raptors set to the tone with their physicality. They were in their element as things started to get chippy, while the Trail Blazers just seemed frustrated.

Playing without leader Damian Lillard, who was nursing a foot injury, Portland jawed with the officials, and then with the Raptors and their bench before coming undone.

Led by Lowry and Serge Ibaka – who, at one point, got in the face of centre Jusuf Nurkic – the defending champs embraced the chaos. They showed their mental and physical toughness in playing through the chatter and holding the Blazers to 26 per cent shooting, outscoring them 38-21 in the frame.

Late in the quarter, Lowry drilled a pull-up three – his last bucket before coming out of the game – and then nodded in the direction of a couple Portland players, as if to say, “quiet down.”

“I don't know how physical it was but there was a lot of talking, I know that much,” Nurse said after the scrimmage. “The setting kind of [exaggerates it], that everybody can hear everything everybody's saying at both ends [and] from the benches. It was actually kind of entertaining there for a while. Both benches were kind of going back and forth a little bit.”

“We are all competitors and we all want to win the game, whether it’s a scrimmage or regular season or, obviously, in the playoffs,” said guard Matt Thomas. “With the court and the venue being the way it is, I think you are going to see [more trash talk]. Maybe the audience or viewer might hear a little more chatter, but that stuff that is going on at any game. With these circumstances right now maybe it’s a little more obvious to see.”

It’s still early days in the bubble, but the Raptors haven’t wasted any time in reminding people that they’re not going to back down from anybody. They’re back, and so is their championship swagger.