Cover Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Asked about Gasol’s trimmed-down physique, Nurse offered a compelling explanation — via Gasol himself — as to why the time off allowed for such focused conditioning work.
“I did ask him about what was the key. ‘What’d you do?’ And he just said, ‘Man, it was consistency,’” Nurse said. “With the situation we’ve all been in the last four months, you take out the games and all the long road trips and the late-night flights, and all the things that factor in making fitness and nutrition a little harder, take all those out and he just said it was a consistent rhythm, eating at the same time every day, and eating very healthy obviously, and all that stuff.”
That NBA players may be better suited for general fitness work outside of their jobs as professional athletes is at first blush counterintuitive. Being around a team affords players, coaches, medical staff, nutritionists, chefs and top-level facilities. And then you remember that right before the league shut down, the Raptors had played six games in six cities across three time zones, traveling 7,800 kilometres over 11 days, cancelling every off-day practice along the way due to the heavy travel demands (and a thinned-out roster). A few months of routine seems like it would be pretty beneficial in contrast, even if there’s no accounting for the lack of on-court play.
Nurse, by the way, said he’s trying to follow Gasol’s lead and lose a few pounds in Orlando.
“The food has been a great help for me trying to cut a few. It’s been fitting right in with that plan, so all good, all good,” he joked.
Finding a rhythm
With 22 teams sharing three practice floors, scheduling is somewhat out of the team’s hands, but you won’t find Nurse complaining. Teams generally are assigned a three-hour block in the morning or the afternoon in which they need to get warm-ups done, team drill work and individual skill development.
It’s plenty, Nurse says.
“I think all of us for four months have lost the rhythm of our lives, right, the ways we probably want them to set up,” he said. “You just kinda gotta be open-minded and adaptable and just kind of take it.
“I mean a three-hour block of time is a pretty long time that we can usually get our stretching and corrective pre-practice work done, start somewhere in the middle of that… block of time to get their main work done and then you kind of taper out of it, get some shooting.
“You’ve seen us before, some of the younger guys… kind of putting the second session to kind of get ‘em those reps that they need on the defensive end and all that stuff.
“We’re trying to manage it a little bit individually but also get a bunch of group work done as well.”
Nick Nurse and Terrence Davis detail how Marc Gasol is healthy and ready for the NBA restart.
“We’ll probably monitor it individually, but almost mandate some days off in there, again, to let their bodies kind of regroup for a full day and recharge as we get back here early.”
But Gasol is the most important asset to protect because of his age and the sheer amount of basketball he’d played, for the Raptors and in Spain’s world championship run before the injuries that wrecked almost all of his 2019-20 season.
He’s too valuable to the team, too integral to whatever success the Raptors will have, to overwork him now — no matter how good or healthy or thin he is.
“He looks really, really good. He’s moving really well,” teammate Terence Davis II said. “He looks like Prime Marc to me, so I don’t know, man. It’s scary.”
Gasol’s skills are undeniable and vital for the Raptors. The seven-footer is one of the best passing big men in the NBA — his ability to facilitate Toronto’s offence gives it an extra dimension most teams don’t have — and he is the club’s defensive anchor.
Keeping him healthy, no matter what his body type is, and expanding his contribution is part of the plan in the training camp portion.
Before being traded to Toronto, Gasol was averaging 15.7 points and nearly five assists per game with the Grizzlies. For years, he had been a focal point of Memphis’ offense, with a usage rate around 21 percent. But in Toronto, those numbers dipped with the workload more spread out.
Now, as the 2020 playoffs approach, and with Gasol looking like “prime Gasol,” according to Davis, the Raptors might be ready to turn back the clock on Gasol’s career.
“There’s more we can probably go to the well with, with him,” Nurse said. “I think I’d like to probably make him a main cog in the offense, but with the way things have been going since he’s been here and even this year, it seems to be there’s a lot of guys that can chip in in this thing.
“I think there’s probably some baskets in him in the fourth quarter or down the stretch that we could probably find and play a little inside out through him as well,” Nurse said. “Any time we can get him the ball, good things happen. Not necessarily buckets from him, but good things happen. It would probably be a good thing to see if we can get his usage rate up. Again, I’m working on it, I’m not sure if it’s going to happen, but it is a thought in what we’re doing.”
In This Episode:
2:30 — Woj F-Bomb
The NBA’s recent support for the Black Lives Matter movement — allowing players to change the backs of their jerseys to include social messages — has ignited a discussion about other messages that are missing. Senator Josh Hawley chimed in with his own suggested messages. Let’s just say Adrian Wojnarowski did not approve.
17:20 — BLM messages
The NBA and WNBA went in opposite directions with jersey social messaging. While the NBA outlined a pre-defined list of approved messages, the WNBA went with one. Funny how the simplest approach was received with much less fanfare, yet much less criticism.
28:20 — Championship flex
The Raptors rolled into the bubble like true champions. Two buses fashioned with, “Black Lives Matter” was beautifully designed and powerful in its simplicity. The NBA re-start also allows the Raptors to (finally) give Danny Green his championship ring (definitely, maybe).
The Raptors practice together for the first time in 4 months, while LeBron James picks up exactly where he left off. Kayla Grey gets you set on Sunday morning’s episode of Sports AM by TSN on Quibi.
The Raptors on the court are also taking an early cautious approach easing into activity after the extended, for them unnatural, break from strenuous physical activity.
Nurse is taking things nice and slowly for his returning players and letting them tell him when they’ve had enough.
“I’ve asked the guys to really self-monitor themselves, especially the veteran guys and ease into things here a little bit,” the Raptors head coach said. “I’ve tried to get to kind of the majority of the action early in practice to avoid fatigue and get to the main part, I think they need to play.
“Marc (Gasol) went for a good stretch of practice, the main bits and just like I suggested, took himself out to kind of ease into it. I think OG (Anunoby) did later on in the practice as well. Just again, I’m really leaving it to them, they know their bodies best and how they’re feeling.”
Nurse remains very happy with what he has seen from his team.
“Intensity was super high, I thought, especially for this early in the morning and it was a good one, a good effort and again just getting a lot of things in,” he said. “Pretty happy, just looking at some of our foundational stuff, I see it already appearing so it’s a good start for two days.”
Fred VanVleet, Raptors
In October, which feels like a decade ago, VanVleet said on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid that he wanted to re-sign in Toronto. “This organization knows how I feel about this place,” VanVleet said. “So in a perfect world, we know what would happen.” (He also said that he told the Larry O’Brien trophy “like, psychically, telepathically, ‘All right brother, I’ll see you in June.’” Though the championship will actually be in October now, I love a player who can communicate psychically and telepathically.) It’s hard to believe this is only VanVleet’s fourth season in the league. He went undrafted out of Wichita State in 2016-17, became a mercurial backup in Toronto who slowly turned to a solid backup, then became a key defensive option and an NBA champion, and is someone who, I maintain to this day, should’ve gotten more love for Finals MVP.
Toronto is in a refreshingly freeing position entering free agency. Its core members are locked up: Pascal Siakam signed a four-year, $129.9 million max deal, and Kyle Lowry inked a one-year, $30.5 million extension to stay through 2021. (I’m still in awe of this deal. A one-year extension for a 34-year-old, especially for a franchise legend, is future flexibility most front offices couldn’t get.) Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will become free agents, but a young supporting cast is made up of players on team-friendly deals, leaving plenty of money on the books for VanVleet.
If Toronto isn’t willing to pony up, there are a handful of teams in need of a guard with VanVleet’s skill set. New York is perpetually searching, Detroit needs more than Derrick Rose, and even Atlanta’s been suggested with VanVleet playing off-ball.
9. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
The evolution of Serge Ibaka probably tracks pretty close to that of the center position, generally. Over his first three seasons, he attempted just six threes. Over his first six seasons, he averaged 0.7 three-point attempts and a league-leading 2.6 blocks.
In 2019-20, Ibaka is averaging a career-high 16.0 points and hitting 39.8 percent of 3.3 three-point attempts per game. For the first time in his career, he has produced less than a block per game.
Ibaka is a completely different player than he was at the outset of his career. And his ability to space the floor from the 5 opens up the paint for slashing from players like Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.
When all three are on the floor, the Raptors outscore opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions and post a defensive rating that ranks in the 92nd percentile.
Ibaka is a more offensively oriented player than he was early in his career, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still defend. In those aforementioned lineups, he and Siakam are both able to cover the inside or switch onto smaller players on the perimeter. Their combined length helps to make up for the lack of size from a backcourt that includes the 6’0″ Lowry and 6’1″ Fred VanVleet.
As it stands, the Raptors are second in the Eastern Conference. There’s also plenty to like about this team’s makeup. They are second in the NBA in steals per game (8.8) and first in the league in points allowed per game. They have one of the best defenses in the league and are stingy on that end of the floor.
In Kawhi’s absence, Pascal Siakam has stepped up in a huge way. He’s a budding superstar and continues to get better. Before the hiatus, Siakam was averaging 24 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 36 percent shooting from 3-point range. He also had an 18.7 PER (player efficiency rating) on the season.
He’s big, has great length, and plays excellent defense. He’s also a natural scorer that has shown the ability to carry and lead a team. The sky is the limit for Siakam and the great thing about his potential is that he’s only beginning to scratch the surface on the player he can be.
After Siakam for the Raptors, they also have Mr. Old Reliable, Kyle Lowry. Still on of the NBA’s most underrated point guards, Lowy was averaging 20 points, eight assists, and five rebounds per game before the play stoppage.
The Raptors know they can rely on Lowry, especially with the way he delivered for the team in the NBA Finals last season.
Another player that could emerge for the Raptors when the season restarts is OG Anunoby. During his third season in the NBA, Anunoby was averaging 11 points and five rebounds per game in the regular season. Though, throughout the year, he showed much promise and flashed for big performances on more than one occasion.
The hope is that he can take another step in his progression after the four-month hiatus heading into the playoffs.
Another player who has emerged as a colossal x-factor for the Raptors, even extending into last year’s playoff run, is Fred VanVleet. VanVleet was having a career-year before the hiatus, averaging 18 points per game on 39 percent shooting from 3-point range.
As a unit, the Raptors are one of the NBA’s deepest teams. Even though they continue to be overlooked because of the lack of a big-name superstar, this is a team that could be primed for a breakout performance in the playoffs.
This Season’s Matchups
This season, the Nets are 1-3 against Toronto, with Brooklyn winning the most recent matchup in mid-February. Excluding one blowout Raptors win in early January, all the games have been relatively close, being decided by 10 points or fewer.
In those matchups, the Raptor who seemed to hurt the Nets the most consistently was point guard VanVleet, who played in three of the four matchups, scoring 29 points twice and 22 points, respectively.
On the Brooklyn side, LeVert was the one who led the offensive charge, scoring 37 in the third meeting. He’ll have to be an All-Star all series long for the Nets to advance.
Keys to Success
Diving into the Raptors, it’s easy to point out their strengths, but make no mistake, this team has its so-called “chinks in the armor.” They have the tendency to fall in love with the 3-pointer and possess a lot of aging players.
In a restart as abrupt as this, no one will be in peak physical form. Younger teams like the Nets should have an advantage when it comes to stamina, and while the Raptors love to get out in transition, this restart will certainly test their endurance and mental fortitude. In terms of what the Nets can control, here are four more ways they can win a potential series against Toronto:
- Limit the Raptors’ bench points
- Don’t let guys like VanVleet or Powell go off for 25 points or more
- Get production outside of LeVert and Harris
- Allen must outplay Gasol and be an effective rim protector against Siakam and Lowry
Pascal Siakam shares with Steve Nash the feeling of winning an NBA title, learning from Kawhi and taking his game to another level.
“The Dream” is one of the greatest centers of all-time and was the main man behind the Houston Rockets’ back-to-back title conquests in ’94 and ’95.
He played three years for the University of Houston before the Rockets made him their number one overall selection in the 1984 draft. Olajuwon spent 17 seasons in H-Town, and most believe he ended his illustrious career in Texas.
That certainly was not the case since he spent his final season in the NBA playing for the Raptors in the 2000-01 season. While most legends nowadays sign one-year contracts to retire with their longtime teams, Hakeem took the other route and ended his rein elsewhere.
The Nigerian center surprisingly declined a 3-year, $13 million deal with Houston, and was traded to Toronto for multiple draft picks. Olajuwon, who was already 38 at the time, was nowhere near his superstar stature. He normed career-lows of 7.1 points and 6.0 rebounds in 61 games and was forced to retire following a back injury.