Title defense starts tonight.
When asked about the Canadian anthem, Nurse pointed out that “we certainly have our issues with police brutality in Canada. We don’t want anyone to confuse that, it’s certainly an area Canada needs to work on as well.”
The images of dozens of players and staff kneeling with arms linked during Thursday’s U.S. anthem were powerful. Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who was at the Los Angeles Clippers vs. Lakers game, called the moment “beautiful.”
Playing both the U.S. and Canadian anthems pre-game will create a different moment, Nurse said.
“(But) this isn’t about countries, this isn’t about the borders, to me it’s about continuing to shine the light on that we need to do better in (the) police brutality area, we need to do better in the systemic racism area,” the coach said. “That’s not just Canada, America, that’s a lot of places, so we treat that as one long song tomorrow.”
Major League Soccer kicked off its MLS is Back Tournament with a silent ceremony that saw more than 170 Black players from nearly every team ring the field, also at Disney World. The demonstration lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds, the initially reported time a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, eventually killing him.
“I love having the ball in my hands late in the game, tie game, being down, being up,” said James, who struggled on offense, shooting 6-for-19 and committing five turnovers. “We had a three-point (lead) with like 40 seconds to go. We got a great look for Danny (Green). He missed it. Paul George came back and hit a 3 to tie the game. For me, it was to be aggressive … I was able to follow my own shot and put us up for good.”
The Raptors, who will be playing their first restart game, completed the last of three scrimmages Tuesday in a 117-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Pascal Siakam led the Raptors with 17 points while Norman Powell added 14. Fred VanVleet finished with 13, and Kyle Lowry had 11 points and seven assists.
“I think we have a group of professionals that go out there and know their jobs and understand their roles and I think that’s one thing I will say is we have is true professionals, guys who want to win and guys who want to continue to chase what we want to try to get to again and that’s holding the trophy at the end of this season,” Lowry said after practice Friday. “For us, it’s about just being us and continuing to try to grow in these eight games and then pushing forward to the next three months of the playoffs.”
The defending champions played well before the break, owning the NBA’s third best record at 46-18. They are a distant second in the Eastern Conference behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
“We like to think we’re pretty good,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse joked, when asked about his team’s chances of contending again. “I think we’ve got some special players, I think we’ve got a good combination of experience with some energetic youth. I think we play defense and really like to play defense. Again, I think if you play defense in the way we’re capable of doing it you can go a long ways in any season.”
They are prepared to resume defence of the NBA title on Saturday night carrying that well-hidden swagger with them.
“We believe in us,” Serge Ibaka said Friday after the team’s final practice before Saturday’s seeding game against the Los Angeles Lakers. “I think it’s our confidence, nobody can take that from us. We trust each other, we know what to do to win, so I think that’s important.
“No matter what’s going around out there, whatever they’re saying, I think that’s one thing they cannot take from us … our confidence, the confidence we have now, and how we live with each other, how we know how to play with each other.”
In these strangest of times, that familiarity, the shared experience, the trust that exists between championship teammates may be the greatest attribute the Raptors collectively possess.
They went through about 10 weeks of intense competition during their run to the 2019 NBA title, it hardened them, it taught them, it brought them closer together. They will most certainly draw on all of that for the remainder of this broken-up season.
“I mean it’s a good group of guys, and we’ve got some toughness and we love to play and we love to compete,” coach Nick Nurse said. “We’re looking forward to being able to do what we do out there and we think we’re hard to beat.”
There are obviously legitimate contenders other than the Raptors and nothing is going to be remotely easy. The Lakers began their seeding season with a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, the Milwaukee Bucks were in the midst of a historic regular season when things came to a screeching COVID-19 induced halt in March and teams like Houston, Denver and Boston have the same championship hopes the Raptors do.
While the loss of Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers last summer had people scoffing at Toronto’s chances at another deep playoff run, the Raptors paid no attention, climbing to second in the conference despite being hobbled by injuries – Toronto was fifth worst in the league in games lost to injury.
A place in the NBA Finals would mean being sequestered at the NBA’s campus until mid-October. Coach Nick Nurse believes his team has what it takes to ring in the fall at Disney World.
“I think we’ve got some special players, I think we’ve got a good combination of experience with some energetic youth, I think we play defence and we really like to play defence. I think if you play defence at a level that we’re capable of doing it, you can go a long ways any season, really,” he said.
Nurse spoke of the “specialness” of certain players, and then proceeded to list off virtually his whole roster.
“It’s a good group of guys, and we’ve got some toughness and we love to play and we love to compete,” he said. “We’re looking forward to being able to do what we do out there and we think we’re hard to beat.”
The Raptors have the toughest schedule of the 22 teams in the bubble, facing teams such as Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston over the next two weeks.
Nurse said his players can’t wait to get going.
“The feel, there’s an excitement and an energy there but it seems to be very similar, back to regular season,” he said. “It feels like it’s March . . . as far as the games go, it’s an attitude that it’s March rather than November, October (the traditional start of the regular season), whatever.”
Injuries are a concern after a four-month layoff that for many players was the longest of their career.
Nurse likely won’t tighten up his rotation until the playoffs, to allow his players time to ease back into playing full-out games. But it could be tough to rein them in.
“You know it’s gonna be too hard for me and players like myself and all pros to hold back,” scrappy guard Kyle Lowry said. “Nick’s gonna do his best for us and we trust him and what he’s gonna do and we’re gonna roll with the decisions that he makes and we’re gonna go out there and try to get better and try to win every game.”
The Raptors play the Los Angeles Lakers in their restart opener Saturday night and in regards to the two anthems being played, as head coach Nick Nurse said Friday afternoon, “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” will be treated as “one long song.”
“We certainly have our issues with police brutality in Canada. We don’t want anyone to confuse that, it’s certainly an area Canada needs to work on as well,” Nurse said. “This isn’t about countries, this isn’t about the borders, to me it’s about continuing to shine the light on that we need to do better in police brutality area, we need to do better in the systemic racism area.
“That’s not just Canada, America. That’s a lot of places. So we treat that as one long song tomorrow.”
It’s still unclear what this demonstration might be, but something does appear to be cooking with Nurse alluding on Thursday that “the players have that stuff figured out.”
What that “something” is Nurse wasn’t willing to share, but we’ll find out Saturday night and by the sounds of things Canada’s national anthem will be involved as well.
He was asked nine questions, all of them basketball-related. He waited for one that would allow him to speak about the topic most pressing on his mind, but it never came. So, the Toronto Raptors’ forward left us with an impassioned call to action.
“One final thing,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I just wanted to say, I didn’t say anything [earlier because] I just wanted to see how the questions were set up and what you guys wanted to ask. Some of you guys have the biggest platforms in the media and talking points, and lots of people follow you guys, so I want to challenge you all.
“We know what is going on in the world and where our focus should be. I know basketball has been missed and it’s loved, but there are a lot of crazy things going on in this universe and we need you guys, along with a lot of other people, to put this word out, to put this message out. We need unity. We need love. We need positivity. And that starts with us, and then it starts with you guys because you guys get our message out. So please, please take this a little bit more seriously. I appreciate you guys.”
With the NBA resuming its season this week, Hollis-Jefferson’s plea is timely and important.
After a hiatus that spanned nearly five months, basketball is making its much-anticipated return. With it come the highlights, rivalries and other fun storylines. The hope is that it will bring fans of the game a little bit of joy during hard times. The fear is that it could distract from the issues that the league’s players, coaches and personnel are working so hard to address.
How do they make sure that slam dunks and three-pointers don’t take the spotlight off the fight for social justice? How do they keep the names of the victims – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others – at the forefront of the discussion? How do they ensure the conversation and the Black Lives Matter movement continue, and even get louder, once the ball is tossed up?
John Wiggins’ big fear was that when the NBA restart tipped off in Florida, the world would forget about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the conversation around racial injustice would fizzle out.
A big part of Wiggins’ new role as the Toronto Raptors vice-president of organizational culture and inclusion is to ensure that doesn’t happen.
People, Wiggins knows, can have short attention spans.
“That’s bang on,” he said. “In fact, the first conversation we had coming out of the George Floyd incident, that’s where I first expressed my fear that the conversation was going to die.
“I kind of went off on a Zoom call and I said, ‘Look Masai [Raptors president Ujiri], my fear is that once basketball starts … people will turn their heads back to sports and hockey and everything else that’s going on.’ And just like every other time, whether we go back to Rodney King or we talk about Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin, [it will be] just like what has happened before.”
King was brutally beaten by police in 1991, Garner was killed by police in 2014, and Martin was fatally shot by a member of a neighbourhood watch group in 2012.
Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked an American uprising, and the NBA and Raptors have vowed to use basketball’s restart to amplify messages on social and racial justice.
17. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 17
Drops in efficiency have become a focus of Pascal Siakam’s season, not as a means of invalidating his performance, but as a way of, earlier on, puncturing tributary MVP love, a repeat bid for Most Improved Player and his place relative to Jayson Tatum.
There is nothing factually incorrect about that conversation. Siakam’s true shooting percentage has dipped by nearly seven points, from 62.8 last year to 55.9 now. His accuracy from beyond the arc has waned over his past 25 games or so, and last season’s 60.2 percent clip on twos has plunged to 50.6.
Spotlighting this as a major concern, though, is skepticism for the sake of pageantry.
Siakam’s role has yet again undergone a drastic shift. His usage rate has jumped by 7.7 points, compared to his 5.1-point spike between 2017-18 and 2018-19. And where last year’s change was more about taking on additional responsibility, this year’s transition is a matter of both volume and transformation. As Yasmin from the Dishes & Dimes podcast and The Neon Playbook unpacked on an episode of Hardwood Knocks (34:24):
“[Raptors head coach] Nick Nurse, he’s spoken about this a lot, where he likes making players uncomfortable as a means of development. For Pascal in particular, he is an excellent straight-line driver; he can get straight to the rim. He’s an excellent cutter. He has several post-up moves that are very high efficiency. But we’re seeing him being forced to dribble, handle the ball into crowds, collapse defenses and then pass out to shooters. They’re trying to build him as a system.”
Awkwardness is the expectation for striking expansion. The frequency with which Siakam finishes possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler has almost tripled, going from 5.3 percent in 2018-19 to 14.1 this year. The time he spends in isolation has almost doubled relative to last season. He’s gone from attempting fewer than one pull-up-jumper per game to five. (He’s hitting an acceptable 34.3 percent of his pull-up threes, by the way.)
Toronto should count itself lucky that Siakam’s efficiency hasn’t fallen further, and that he still has the energy to defend at all. Every team in the league would take his 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists on average-adjacent true shooting under the circumstances. And though his season has never once been spun as a step back, it wants for more appreciation of what he’s actually doing: confirming his superstardom and securing the Raptors’ future.