Basketball / NBA

Toronto gears up for Japan Games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors showed their energy on the floor on Monday as they hit the gym for their first practice since arriving in Japan for a two-game preseason series against the Houston Rockets.

The two teams will square off on Tuesday and Thursday night at Saitama Super Arena in Japan’s first NBA action since 2003. It will also be the first preseason contest for the Raptors this year.

“First of all, we’re super excited to be here,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before the session in Tokyo. “I know when this invitation came to us a while ago, they brought it to me and I immediately said ‘Yes.’ I was excited to get here. We’re here to promote the NBA and the city.

“Obviously, (we’ve) got the defending champs, and I know the Rockets are gearing up for (the title) as we are. We’d like to score points, shoot a lot of 3s, and play team basketball. And (the Rockets) like to score points, shoot a lot of 3s and play team basketball. So I would imagine you should see pretty high scoring (in the two) games.”

While the Raptors no longer have star forward Kawhi Leonard, who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers during the offseason, Spanish center Marc Gasol will hit the floor as one of Toronto’s most notable players in the series.

Gasol will be introduced as a rare double champion, having won the NBA title for Toronto as well as the FIBA World Cup for his native country this year. The 34-year-old veteran said that he has come “pretty much without any rest” but would like his winning experiences to positively influence the upcoming NBA season.

“You understand how lucky and fortunate you are to be in the position to win an NBA championship and (World Cup) at the same time,” Gasol said.

Gasol, who made the all-World Cup team in China, said that he restlessly spent “a lot of time playing basketball” this summer, but it all has been “beautiful challenges.”

Like Nurse and Gasol, center/forward Serge Ibaka positively spun the post-Leonard era as a “new beginning” for Toronto.

“We try to go again, try to compete,” Ibaka said. “It’s a new beginning. A new beginning is always a challenge.

“What happened last year is over. Now it’s a new challenge. We try to go again. It’s going to be even harder. But like I always say, anything is possible so we are going to continue to try.”

Nurse made it official that guard Kyle Lowry, who underwent surgery on his left thumb in July, would not compete in the Japan series. Lowry is expected to resume normal basketball activities after the team returns to North America.

Meanwhile, the Rockets practiced for the second straight day at the same gym as the Raptors. Unlike on Sunday, newly joined superstar guard Russell Westbrook worked mainly on his shooting with player development coach John Lucas away from the rest of the team, which trained in 5-on-5s during the portion of the practice that was open to the media.

When asked if Japanese fans can expect to see him in action on Tuesday, Westbrook responded by saying: “We’ll see.”

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