The meaningless games are over and the defending champions are ready to get down to business.
Toronto finished their scrimmages against Houston, Portland, and Phoenix 2-1, but more importantly, built up some semblance of game shape after over four months away from the game due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Some of the players looked ahead of schedule and others still have some catching up to do, perfectly understandable, and that can be said about the rest of the teams as well. The things that matter most for the Raptors stuck out like a sore thumb: they compete as hard as anyone, they defend as well as anyone, they are beyond unselfish on the offensive end of the floor.
Here are five of the biggest takeaways from their three scrimmage games.
Veterans setting championship tone
Kyle Lowry, at 34, is looking spry as ever and if you had to take a guess on the context of the game based on how hard the Raptors captain competed, you likely would have said the NBA Finals. Lowry was drawing his customary charges, attacking the defence with verve, and jawing at the officials with his customary vigour.
Much has been made of Skinny Gasol and it’s safe to say that Marc has a little extra bounce to his step. On the first pick-and-roll opportunity he had, Gasol actually attempted a dunk! The 35-year-old’s value to the Raptors is immense, helping orchestrate the offence on one end and direct traffic on the other.
And then there’s Serge Ibaka, the veteran who has been an unsung hero for the Raptors all season. Whether it’s entertaining us with his fashion, culinary skills, or a talent show off the court, or tenacious approach on it, Ibaka has by most accounts had the best season of his career. He maintained that momentum in the first two scrimmages, combining for 37 points on 13-of-19 shooting in 42 minutes.
With three of Toronto’s main veterans setting a gold standard for what’s to be expected over the next few months, running it back is very much in play.
OG Anunoby made the most of his free time
Anunoby has set himself apart as a defender. He is arguably the Raptors’ best one-on-one defender, can defend from point guard through to power forward and even centre in a pinch, but the area of his game that will determine his ceiling is his offence.
Through the first 60 or so games of his third season, Anunoby has been more consistent with his three-point stroke but his offensive repertoire hasn’t extended much beyond that. Playoff defences are going to force the ball into his hands as a result and he needs to be ready to attack. He knows this, and while it may have sounded like a joke when he said he spent all of quarantine either on the basketball or cooking up his favourite shrimp linguine, the results are already speaking for itself.
“It’s been something I’ve been working on the whole year,” Anunoby said on Monday. “When we got back in the gym, just me and coach (Patrick) Mutombo worked on it everyday, just trying to keep the ball tight, move fast, stay low to the ground.”
Terence Davis looks ready to handle more
The rookie looked great over the first two games and with Nick Nurse sounding uncertain about Patrick McCaw’s status going forward—the three-time champ is dealing with an issue that has lingered all season and is yet to play—Davis looks in line for a spike in playing time.
Not that he hasn’t earned it with his own play. Davis has tremendous strength and athleticism for his position and with his three-point stroke as money as it has been all season, the Raptors look to have unearthed yet another undrafted gem.
Can he be an x-factor in these seeding games and playoffs to come? It would be a huge bonus to Toronto’s bench if he could.
Nurse is going to keep it janky
Much has been made of the big lineup Nurse has suggested playing in his Zoom conversations with the media after practice, and that may not be the only experiment he tries over the course of the eight seeding games beginning Saturday.
“Early here, gotta get everybody up to speed with the basic foundational stuff,” Nurse said before the first scrimmage game against the Rockets. “And then, yeah, we’re gonna need to look at some of the other stuff. We’ve probably practised some of the changing of defences a lot more than normal. A lot of that stuff when you’re in the midst of the 82, you don’t really have the time to go at that full tilt very much. And we have had the time, real, live kind of competitive scrimmages. We’ve been able to put in more reps with those things.”
We saw Ibaka start alongside Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Lowry in the final two scrimmage games, but Nurse even teased a lineup as big as Siakam at the point guard, Powell at the off-guard, then Anunoby, Ibaka, and Gasol. Earlier in the season, we saw Nurse try a very original defensive experiment that saw Toronto trap James Harden at half-court to force the ball out of his hands possession after possession, so everything’s on the table scheme-wise over in the upcoming eight games.
Player reviews on playing without fans are mixed so far
Sure, there were 300 fans on screens for players to see in the final scrimmage game, but no one’s really there. What did the players make of not having fans around or not worrying about landing on camera crews after a drive to the basket?
“Don't it look so beautiful out there on TV without all those guys and their feet sticking out down there behind the basket? It looks really good, players got a lot of room on the bench, it's so much better without having to cram too many people in a tiny space. I hope all of those guys get their jobs back once this is all over. I don't want anybody to lose their job. But it's definitely a more beautiful landscape to look at when you're looking at the court without those big feet sticking out there underneath the hoop.” – Fred VanVleet
“I kind of think without having fans it gives you the opportunity to focus a little bit more. Sometimes, even when you’re sitting on the bench, not having fans there, it makes you have to focus on everything that’s going on in the game. You get to communicate with your teammates a little more. For some people they might have (inaudible) who like to sit in the crowd or whatever the case may be, but when there are no fans there, nothing to look at, you get to talk to your teammates, focus on the game a little bit more. I would say just doing that at a higher level, definitely.” – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
“I never worry about that—like, to be honest sometimes I don’t even see that. I think maybe as we go, maybe we see if there’s a difference but I didn’t really feel anything like that. It wasn’t something that was on my mind.” – Pascal Siakam