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The Raptors have flown under the radar despite being reigning champions. Expectations were dashed after Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green moved on Los Angeles, and yet the Raptors hold the third-best record in the league with a higher win percentage as compared to last season. The young core of VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell each took a step forward in their development, while veteran leaders Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have held steady as reliable contributors.
Toronto ranks second in defensive rating, and enter the restart with a three-game cushion over the Boston Celtics for second in the East. However, their remaining schedule is stacked. Toronto faces the second-hardest opposition in the eight seeding games leading up to the playoffs, including top contenders such as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks. Meanwhile, the Celtics’ slate skews easier.
“I assume we’re gonna play them all to win. We didn’t really get the best luck of the draw in comparison to other teams, we got a tough schedule,” VanVleet said of the schedule.
The one silver lining with the COVID-19 shutdown is that the Raptors were able to finally regain their health. Every member of the rotation (outside of Anunoby) missed at least 10 games, and their full starting five were only available in 17 games. Head coach Nick Nurse did an excellent job of keeping the team afloat despite the injuries, and that’s one of the main reasons why he is favoured to win Coach of the Year. But there are more challenges ahead, as Nurse and his staff will need to work against the clock to get his team on the same page in time for the playoffs.
“There’s gonna be some time where we’re going to have to ease into things, and find our flow. Eight games is not really a great sample size to get hot or get cold. It’s going to be up and down, I’m sure. The biggest thing is that we start to find our rhythm, hopefully get out of those eight games unscathed health-wise, and then we’ll gear up for whatever series we have to gear up for,” VanVleet said.
“We’re going to have to beat great teams no matter what the situation is, no cupcakes getting into this thing. It’s going to be tough for anybody, but like I said, I think I like our chances.”
Ujiri did not specify names, but he said the Raptors have formed a committee involving players, coaches, and front office members to address how they will respond to the myriad issues. Many different players are expected to make their own individual statements, including changing the names on the back of their jerseys to further their messages.
“With my platform, with my position, how am I trying to help and really push with these issues and how we solve them?” Ujiri said. “And then what are we doing collectively? Like I know Fred, he’s doing things individually. Kyle (Lowry) is doing things on his own, Bobby (Webster) is doing things on his own. Nick (Nurse) is doing things on his own. Then, we have to do things, collectively. We’ve formed a nice little committee composed of players and coaches and front office members and we’re going to tackle this matter, as hard as we can, because it’s so important to us, and the momentum is now.”
“The only way (the NBA) is being consumed is on TV,” VanVleet added. “So I think that’s going to go a long way and it’s something that will last for years to come. People will always look back on these games and the first thing they’ll see is whether there’s a fist on the court or a name and they’ll have to look and say, ‘What is that?’ or ‘Who is Breonna Taylor?’ or ‘Who is George Floyd?’ if that’s what guys choose.”
Despite all of the concerns, Ujiri said there were no Raptors that required convincing from the organization to return to play. Players such as Washington’s Davis Bertans, Lakers guard Avery Bradley, Brooklyn’s Wilson Chandler and Dallas’s Willie Cauley-Stein have already decided to skip Orlando for various reasons. But every Raptor is in Naples and intends to head to Disney.
Certainly, there is pride within the group and an eagerness to defend their title, no matter how odd the circumstances will be. That does not mean the decision to head to Orlando was easy.
“I definitely respect guys that took the stand to sit out for whatever reason,” VanVleet said. “But my choice was to come play. I’m not right and they’re not wrong. It’s just a personal choice for everybody.
“I understand that around the league there have been some positive tests and they are trying to get ahead of that now so that when we are actually in the bubble, hopefully everything will be OK. I’m trying to be optimistic about it. It’s not the most ideal situation but it’s kind of the times we are in. It hasn’t been ideal for anyone.”
And while Raptors president Masai Ujiri said he didn’t have to convince any of his players — all of whom are participating in the restarted season — to play, he said there were teamwide discussions that he thought were important to get everyone on the same page.
“I think it’s important that we communicate with all our players and this thing takes time,” he said. “It’s a process and we all put our heads together with our organization as much as we can, especially in a situation like this.
“It’s a focus on safety, it’s a focus on individual safety and their families, too. … We have to get everybody involved. Our coaches were involved, our players were involved in this decision to go there.”
Ujiri, the NBA’s only Black president of basketball operations, said the platform the NBA has as part of this return to play in Orlando is something he believes he, the Raptors as an organization and the league as a whole can take advantage of to promote changes in both the NBA and society.
“First of all, this is a really interesting time,” Ujiri said. “Black lives do matter, and we’re going really going to use this platform, I think. It’s continuous, right? This is something that I don’t think is going to stop. Because, so there’s so much, so, so much to be addressed. We have had really good discussions and meetings.
“I think you saw what Adam said on the league level. I think that’s, that’s first and foremost of what the league would do. I think we’re concentrating on a few things. What does the NBA do long term, in terms of what resources are they going to put into this? I think there’s the discussion of Black executives and Black positions in the NBA. And then there’s a discussion of how you use the campus at Orlando, to really show the world that we can be a voice, [the] players can be a voice.”
Players will likely to be able to have personalized social justice, social cause or charity messages on the backs of their jerseys instead of their last names during the upcoming restart, as The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears reported this weekend.
Masai Ujiri explains why he is confident the Toronto Raptors will be able navigate the unusual situation when the NBA season resumes.
6. The Raptors are ranked 12th and 2nd in offensive and defensive rating, respectively
This tidbit is a mouthful but it puts things in perspective as to where the Raptors are as a team when compared to the rest of the league. Their fourth-ranked Net rating puts them right there with the league’s elite. While injuries have made it tough for them to flourish offensively, Toronto still functions with two All-Stars, Siakam and Lowry, and a strong supporting cast of steady core players (Powell, Ibaka, Gasol, and Fred VanVleet). This means their offense can generate enough inside-out scoring — e.g. looks at the rim and open 3s — to make them a threat against anyone. Will it be enough in the literal pressure-cooker of this restarted season? We’ll see.
Still, it’s on defense where the Raptors really shine. This is where the great odes to their success can truly be written — and it’s where they can absolutely go to work against any team, even one with more offensive fire power. The Raptors have a surfeit of versatile wing defenders (Powell, Siakam, Davis, Hollis-Jefferson, OG Anunoby), and have their smartest players in the key defensive positions (point of attack, at the rim). They have a coach who works and re-works a zillion different defensive schemes just to keep teams guessing. And, quite frankly, they have the team will to make it work. I’d like to make some joke about Toronto’s defense being good enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, but we’ll leave it just short of that.