For now, Raptors players, coaches and staff remain lightly impacted, other than having their planned game against Chicago Thursday postponed because of the outbreak within the Bulls’ organization. Big man Precious Achiuwa missed the past two games in health and safety protocols after he was a close contact of someone who tested positive after Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa gala, but that was on advice of Toronto Public Health, not the league.
If anything, the gala allowed the Raptors to maybe get ahead of things, if only a little bit. Given the positive case, the Raptors started testing employees with a little more regularity last week, with VanVleet mentioning he had missed shootarounds because he had to get tested in the morning. (Vaccinated players who haven’t been close contacts are not required to test regularly, although the league and players’ association have been in discussions to change that recently.)
“We’ve been maybe a few days ahead of that, and we’ve been doing all the extensive double testing and testing before we’re allowed to enter (OVO Athletic Centre, the Raptors’ practice facility), all those kinds of things from when it was at its most stringent,” Nurse said. “Yeah, your first reaction is ‘Ah, more testing,’ and you get over that after about one day or five minutes or whatever and realize that you’re doing the right thing.”
Thursday was the Raptors’ best day of health news in a while. Achiuwa returned to practice after clearing protocols. Dalano Banton, who missed the second half against the Kings and the game in Brooklyn, was at practice. So, too, were a pair of welcome additions: OG Anunoby, who has missed the past 13 games because of a hip pointer he suffered at a practice in Portland a month ago, and Khem Birch, who has missed the past 10 games with knee swelling. All three of Achiuwa, Anunoby and Birch are expected to be listed as questionable for Saturday’s game against Golden State.
As for playing in Tuesday’s game, before which seven Nets players entered protocols within 24 hours, VanVleet said he was fine with it.
“Until they tell us not to … we gotta fall in line. I think they’re doing the best they can, given the circumstances,” VanVleet said. “We’re certainly doing our part. I think things will pick up here in terms of rules and the strictness and certain things and just trying to be preventative, but we’ll do what they say until otherwise.
“Until I see a whole team out with all the coaches out as well … then I’ll think something of it,” VanVleet said. “But we’ve seen it all last year so (Tuesday) was no different.”
Late-game offense has been a challenge for the Raptors at times this season – most notably how their offense sputtered down the stretch against the undermanned Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night, where they shot just 35 per cent in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime.
On the season, they’ve been more than respectable with an offensive rating of 115.9, which is eighth in the league and better than their overall offensive rating of 109.6, which is 11th. Given the Raptors’ injury issues and that they lack what would be commonly defined as a high-end closer, that their offense ticks up late in close games is no mean feat.
Nurse says that while some players are more willing and able to take the kind of difficult shots that can be needed in late-game, late-clock situations, having more guys on the floor who are comfortable in the moment is something they work on.
“I do try to evaluate it. We actually do quite a bit of it in drill work,” he said. “You can see the level at which guys can do it. It’s not an easy thing. There are several layers to it. One is getting the rhythm of it. Can you get a shot off? Some guys – when guys are draped on them – can squeeze shots off, and that’s really important. The worst thing is to not get a shot at all. That’s a tough skill to have [to get off contested shots]. Not everyone has that skill.
“The other part for me is: I’ve always thought there’s a way to exploit matchups or go with guys that people aren’t expecting as well. I probably tend to believe in too many people [having a chance at the last shot] versus the other way around. It’s always kind of been that way. It’s something we practise and try to coach up.”
The key also, said VanVleet, who had an 18-footer to win the game in regulation but missed everything, is to stay calm and have a short memory.
“You just got to be in those situations and see what works,” he said. “I mean, I’ve made big shots. I air-balled the other night, you know, it’s the way it goes, like I’ve made some and I’ve missed some, you know? Sometimes you’re the hero sometimes you get talked about for a couple of days, and then it wears off you go to the next game, so I definitely was able to laugh about it and you know, get joked on about it by my people, but it just comes with the territory.
“I think it’s a mental thing and just having the approach that if you put the work in and your teammates believe in you, your coaches believe in you, you go out there and give it your best and the rest, will fall where it falls.”
It’s not perfect and it’s certainly not desirable, but the Raptors fully understand that limiting the number of fans in the stands is a necessary move.
Capacity at Scotiabank Arena will be cut in half for Raptors games beginning Saturday night against the Golden State Warriors — a game that would normally attract one of the loudest and most boisterous audiences of the season — and continue for the foreseeable future.
It will dampen the mood and lower the volume, but they hope it will also lead to a safer existence for everyone.
“I think it’s a little bittersweet. We were lucky to have fans back, we were lucky to kind of go back to the way things were, but obviously we’ve got to put the health and safety first,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said Thursday. “So we’ll fall in line with whatever that means … I’m sure there’ll be bumps in the road at some point, but just try to do everything in our favour and our power to give ourselves the best chance to stay healthy and stay above board.”
Still, there’s predictable disappointment about not being able to play in front of nearly 20,000 fans as the Raptors are used to.
“Everybody’s got a moment of balancing out being disappointed, because you want things to stay the way they are, or improve, and they’re just not right now,” coach Nick Nurse said. “Common sense prevails always … Hopefully we learned some lessons of keeping our focus and our head down and working, and being vigilant and getting ready to play the game.
“The game’s still there to be played and we need do our best, most professional job with that.”
Are the Raptors finally getting back to a full roster (barring, of course in these uncertain times, any upcoming health and safety protocols absences)? It
Only days after Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said it was likely OG Anunoby and Khem Birch would be out for “the foreseeable future,” a query about the state of the roster brought encouraging news.
“Precious, OG, Khem all went through practice today, they all will remain questionable for (Saturday against Golden State), we’re just kind of making a step forward,” Nurse said.
Anunoby, who leads Toronto in scoring, has missed the last 13 games with a hip pointer. Birch, who had joined the starting lineup at centre for three games before missing 10 in a row with knee swelling, would be a welcome addition, as would Precious Achiuwa, the other main centre, who has had to miss the last four games because of a shoulder injury or the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
Rookie guard Dalano Banton had sat Tuesday’s loss at Brooklyn and part of the game the night before due to a non-COVID-related illness, but Nurse said he was “fine” and “fully fit and in practice today.”
While Banton should be a go for Saturday, Nurse cautioned that the team still needs to see how Anunoby, Birch and Achiuwa respond to being back at practices before they are cleared.
Famously, VanVleet was the “one” in the “box-and-one” defensive coverage that Nurse threw at Curry during The Finals, and he spent most of the series chasing around the future hall of famer. That, and his shooting heroics, earned him a vote for Finals MVP.
Since then, VanVleet has taken a page or two out of Curry’s book, working to extend his range well beyond the three-point arc. With the 27-year-old’s offensive role continuing to expand, and opposing defences reacting accordingly, his ability to pull-up from distance allows him more space to get his shot off.
While Curry leads the NBA in shot attempts from outside of 25 feet with 249 – and he’s hitting 42 per cent of them – VanVleet has taken 165, the fourth-most in the league, and is shooting 35 per cent from that range.
Kyle Lowry holds the Raptors franchise record for most threes in a season with 238, set in 2017-18, but at his current pace (hitting 3.3 of his 8.5 attempts per game) VanVleet is on pace to break it, something that he and Lowry were joking about the other day.
But, again, some perspective on what Curry is doing: VanVleet is on pace to hit 267 threes this season. Curry is responsible for four of the five best three-point shooting seasons in NBA history, including his league record 402 threes in 2015-16, which he is currently on pace to top this year.
With Thursday’s game postponed, Nurse squeezed in a morning practice session and, appropriately, a late afternoon shooting lab. Naturally, much of their preparation in the coming days will focus on slowing down Curry, which all might be for naught. Saturday’s contest will be the final stop on a five-game road trip for the Warriors, and the second night of a back-to-back after playing in Boston on Friday. There’s a reasonable chance that Steve Kerr opts to rest his vets, namely Curry and Green.
Whether they play or not, the Raptors know they’ll have their hands full. Despite holding Curry to a season-low 12 points on 1-of-6 from long range in last month’s meeting, the Warriors hit 22 of their 45 three-point attempts as a team, en route to a 119-104 win. Jordan Poole and Canadian Andrew Wiggins combined for 55 points on 14-for-19 from deep.
Toronto hopes to have reinforcements, with OG Anunoby (hip pointer), Khem Birch (knee swelling) and Precious Achiuwa (health and safety protocols, and shoulder tendinitis) returning to practice on Thursday and listed as questionable for this weekend’s game.
The always daunting Golden State Warriors may not look so scary Saturday night when they take on the Toronto Raptors.
The Warriors are reportedly leaning toward sitting Steph Curry and Draymond Green on the second night of a back-to-back Saturday, following Friday night’s tilt with the Boston Celtics.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone has overlooked the Raptors this season. The Milwaukee Bucks gave Giannis Antetokounmpo a rest night earlier this month due to a knee injury. It may have seemed insulting at the time, but Fred VanVleet was more than happy to take on an easier opponent that night.
“In the back of your head, you thank the man upstairs and try to get a win,” VanVleet said post-game.
Saturday’s game will be Toronto’s first under the new COVID-19 restrictions limiting capacity to 50%.
MLSE ultimately decided to “prioritize and satisfy” season-ticket holders — about 85 per cent of total seats for Leafs games, roughly 70 per cent for the Raptors — when deciding who gets into the building at half-capacity, roughly 10,000.
The process involved more than 100 employees — in the hours between Ford’s announcement and Thursday afternoon — to deal with refunds, answer a flood of questions from the public and help notify those who can attend, starting with Saturday night’s Raptors-Warriors game. The next Leafs home date is Dec. 23 against the St. Louis Blues.
“All non-season seat tickets will be refunded, and tickets will be allocated among season seat members for upcoming games based on the new capacity limited,” MLSE said in Thursday’s statement.
Similar to the Raptors pre-season, when restrictions were also in place, season-ticket holders will be divided randomly into two groups and receive tickets to attend alternate games “between now and mid-January.”
“Members will be contacted again in January with allocations for the next phase of games based on current public health restrictions. All ticket holders will be notified of refund details in the coming days, with Raptors members being notified (Thursday) and Leafs members being notified by Tuesday, of allocation details.”
Credit-card refunds will take seven to 10 days, McDonald said.
McDonald called the compromise “fair and equitable” for ticket holders.
“Our members have made the commitment of buying every seat for every game and that’s a commitment we made to them. to give them access when we are able,” he said. “Obviously going through this process with reduced capacity, things have changed, but we made this decision to prioritize them given the history and the long-standing support that our members have and continue to give us.”