Raptors feeling confident, ready for challenges ahead of NBA restart

TORONTO – Just a week into the new normal and the Toronto Raptors are already making it seem like things are pretty normal.

Or as normal as things can possibly be when you’re a team about to head into a bubble for the resumption of a season that was suspended because of an ongoing global pandemic.

Still in just the second media availability since the team touched down in Florida as they begin their preparations for the NBA season’s restart, had it not been for the fact this availability was taking place over Zoom, with the way the Raptors were talking, you could’ve sworn this was a regular training camp availability.

“It’s kind of like a basketball camp feel. We’re in the dead of summer so that too kind of makes it feel like basketball camp,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse Tuesday. “As far as what I have seen, it’s been great. Players look fantastic, I mean absolutely. When you see them with the eyeball test, they look great. Their attitudes have also been fantastic and it feels like we are in really early stages of kind of getting back going because it’s such a limited one-on-one skill work, individual type thing we are doing now, but everyone is in a good frame of mind.”

Added Norman Powell: “I think we’ve come in, in great shape. I think guys have done a great job of making the most of what they can and working with what’s available to them. There’s not guys that are out of shape or lagging behind. Everybody’s in great, general shape in talking to different guys on the team. We feel good.

“Obviously we’re a little bit rusty and haven’t been in this high quality of workouts and in basketball for a while, but everybody has been doing what they can, and everybody looks good, feels good, they are confident, and ready to get back into the full swing of things.”

There may have also been some “best condition of my life” talk in there, too.

But sarcasm aside, there’s little denying this is a very confident Raptors group heading into the NBA season’s resumption.

Starting all the way from the top with team president Masai Ujiri saying his team is going to be “awesome” when games start back up Monday, there’s an air of confidence coming from the Raptors at the moment that might be mistaken for cockiness if not for the fact they are the defending champions that, before the season suspended boasted the third-best record in the whole league – even without Kawhi Leonard.

As Nurse explained it, this is a confidence borne from the team’s past experiences together and the fact each member of the team pulls for each other, another reason, perhaps, why everyone came back into this restart camp in as good shape as everyone said they did.

“I didn’t know if we were going to be not really in the right frame of mind or whatever and whatever it was I was going to kind of deal with it, but I would say I am pleasantly surprised with the frame of mind, I am pleasantly surprised with the conditioning and I just think you have a bunch of guys who have a high care factor,” said Nurse. “They love to play, they are guys that are concerned about getting better individually, about their own careers, and it just seems like they’re doing a really professional job. I just think there is a strong love of the game there for a lot of these guys.”

The most visible example of this, at least from photos, has definitely been Marc Gasol, who hasn’t played a game since Jan. 28 recovering from a hamstring injury., and has looked far slimmer than recent memory would serve.

Marc Gasol has lost some serious weight pic.twitter.com/iKFddDKdaV

— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) June 20, 2020

Gasol is with the team in Naples, Fla., right now and so for those who don’t believe the transformation, it’s the real deal.

“The chiselled Marc. Cut up. He looks great,” Nurse said of Gasol’s new physique. “Listen, you guys know how highly I think of him already. He is such a great player. I think it’s motivating for people around him. He certainly looks fantastic. I don’t know, maybe a leaner Marc gets him to more rebounds, gets him to better defensive positions more quickly – not that those are a problem – but maybe he’s going to produce more in those things. Maybe his legs stay in there late in the games for some three-balls. I don’t know. If his conditioning improves him as a player, it’s going to be a super added bonus for us.”

Powell was equally as impressed by Gasol’s transformation.

“The change is that drastic,” said Powell. “I make fun of him all the time looking like a soccer player in Barcelona. He looks great, man, he’s moving great. He’s feeling great, in talking to him. I’m supposed to be playing tennis with him either tomorrow or the next day, so hopefully I’ll still be able to give him a run for his money.”

If Gasol is in good enough condition to chase Powell around the base line, then league look out.

But in all seriousness, if you’re a Raptors fan hearing how well-conditioned the Raptors have managed to keep themselves in this three-month-plus layoff so far has to be encouraging.

Nurse did admit that because the team is just relegated to individual work at the moment, there’s going to be some rust that needs to shake off for proper five-on-five play – “everyone always says that you can never really get in basketball shape unless you’re playing basketball” – but for the most part, the Raptors have done an excellent job of preparing themselves for this moment even before anyone had any clue that the 2019-20 season would resume.

All that extracurricular work will pay off when the season resumes, particularly with how tough Toronto’s eight-game seeding schedule is.

Facing the second-hardest schedule of the 22 teams that made it into the Disney World bubble, however, Nurse and the Raptors aren’t running scared from the sight of it, they’re embracing the challenge and want to make the most of this hurdle in their way before the playoffs hit.

“I like it, I like the schedule,” said Nurse. “I think it’s great to see the Lakers again, Milwaukee again, just to get a feel for them again. I think we’re playing really quality teams, I think every team we’ve got is a playoff team, so, obviously, those are good teams, so I like it.”

With how good the Raptors were before the suspension and the confidence the team is conveying right now, though it’s still early in the process before their first return game on Aug. 1, Nurse has good reason to want this challenge right out of the gate.

His team already seems ready for it.

Quick Dribbles

• Another matter of great importance discussed during Tuesday’s Raptors conference call was the ongoing discussion of social and racial justice, not just in the United States, but in Canada as well.

Powell addressed this matter, mentioning how it might be a good idea to use his platform as an NBA player to even make matters of racial justice on Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s radar in order to help out the community in Toronto.

“We’ve talked about both sides of the spectrum,” said Powell. “Racial injustice is not just happening in America, it’s happening worldwide and I think the focus has been on the United States, but for us, it’s been a privilege to be the only team in Canada and to have that platform and to speak out about the inequalities and injustices both State-side and in Toronto and Canada as a whole. We’re taking that very serious.

“We have a very diverse team. A mix of Canadians, Europeans, people from the United States and everybody has their own personal stories, own personal instances that they’ve experienced in their lives and we’re trying to adjust it all.

“That comes from talking of how we can put on notice with MLSE how we reach out and do things in the community in Toronto and help there but not only in Toronto but in our communities back home for each and every player.”

• And to Powell’s point about what can be done beyond just the United States, Nurse has met with the other NBA head coaches to discuss the matter and he and Raptors assistant coach Jim Sann are even organizing an effort to get U.S. ex-pats abroad the ability to be registered to vote in the U.S. election.

“You might have saw that Atlanta is using their arena as a voting station,” Nurse said. “One of the big pushes you might have saw the article quickly mentioned that Jim Sann and I are pushing voters abroad, it’s a 650,000 to a million ex-pats living in Canada and we’re going to try to get out a message on our platform of registering them to vote in the upcoming election, which will also get worldwide to all U.S. citizens across there.”

Later adding: “I think like with anything, it’s a probably really old initiative that’s hard to get the message out, and we’re hoping to help, we’re hoping to help raise awareness, and use our platforms.

“…We’ll just do some PSA type things, and that’ll involve a few of the players, we’ve already asked a few of the players to be involved, just directing them where to go, how to register and that’s the main thing, direct them to the website and get their registration going and get the wheels in motion and then there’ll be a couple of other steps once we get closer.”