Basketball / NBA

Raptors to defend crown in post-Leonard era

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Toronto Raptors’ magic-carpet ride last season lifted the franchise to new heights of popularity throughout Canada.

Now, it’s back to work for second-year head coach Nick Nurse and his team.

The defending NBA champions’ preseason mission, including their Tuesday and Thursday night games against the Houston Rockets at Saitama Super Arena, is to begin adjusting to life in the post-Kawhi Leonard era.

“I’ve been using the word ‘opportunity,'” Nurse said, explaining how he views the 2019-20 Raptors season during a conference call last week from Quebec City, where the Raptors held a preseason training camp before traveling to Japan. “I think that we’ve got some very good players. Some of the younger guys will get a great opportunity here to expand their roles and possibly do more than they were asked to do a year ago or be allowed to do with the roster composition that we have. So I’m excited to see guys, a couple of them have been around our team for a couple of years.

“It’s time for them to get this opportunity.”

This week marks the NBA’s return to Japan after a 16-year absence. The Seattle SuperSonics and Los Angeles Clippers met on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, 2003 in regular-season games. Seattle won twice, 109-100 and 124-105, at Saitama Super Arena. The Sonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) got 50 points from Rashard Lewis in the second contest.

Nurse, for one, is pleased that NBA has this opportunity to showcase its immense talent for the fans in Japan.

“I’m sure that we’ll find great NBA fans there, in Japan and in Tokyo, and they are going to see two of the best teams in the NBA come over there, so they are going to see a lot of star power, a lot of talent … and I think it’s great,” Nurse said. “We’re excited to come over there and put on a good show for them.”

NBA Finals MVP Leonard and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green joined the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively, in the offseason, just weeks after Toronto dethroned the Golden State Warriors in mid-June.

The Raptors, who went 58-24 last season before dispatching the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference playoffs, have three players on their roster who’ve been in the NBA for a decade or more: point guard Kyle Lowry (13 seasons), center Marc Gasol (11) and power forward/center Serge Ibaka (10).

The majority of the team’s preseason roster features players with between two and four years of NBA experience, including rising star Pascal Siakam, the league’s 2018-19 Most Improved Player Award recipient.

Which is why Nurse and his staff are trying to figure out which player combinations and rotations work best. And for the NBA Japan Games against Houston (a pair of 7 p.m. tipoffs), testing out those combinations is a key objective.

“It will be a real opportunity for us to play a lot of our third — and fourth-year players and then, obviously, take a look at our new players, including Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, (rookie) Terence Davis and Cameron Payne,” said Nurse, who coached the Canada national team at the recent FIBA World Cup in China.

Asked to pinpoint one player on offense and one defense who’ll be keys to the team’s plans this season, Nurse named Siakam and OG Anunoby. The coach said he expects there’ll be more opportunities for Siakam “to carry more of the load” on offense. Last season, Siakam averaged 16.9 points and 3.1 assists.

Nurse has high expectations for Anunoby, an Indiana University product, as a defender. He was “a great defensive player for us as a rookie and just had a sporadic season due to injury last year,” the coach added. “But he’s in great condition, healthy and ready to go. So he will be a key to our defensive composition.”

Nurse isn’t putting pressure on any individual to be a defensive superman. Instead, he insisted that it’s a collective effort, and admitted that “I think defense was the primary reason we won the championship a year ago. So we certainly have to keep that a high priority.”

Floor leader Lowry, a five-time All-Star who contributed 14.2 points and 8.7 assists a season ago, had surgery on his left thumb on July 18. He skipped Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage in Quebec City.

Lowry, who joined Toronto in 2012, is an indispensable part of the team. Or as Nurse put it: “He was just at the highest level a leader for our team last year.”

For the Raptors, life marches on after one glorious season with Leonard, who knocked down numerous memorable shots during their playoff run.

“We played 22 games without Leonard last year, and our team played very, very well in those games,” said Nurse, without citing the team’s 17-5 record in those games. “So again we’re going to have to make sure our defense is solid and maybe improve, and we’re going to have to figure out where that extra scoring is going to come from.”