TORONTO – Adding new characters to an already-established storyline is a trademark of any great drama.
The Sopranos did it, introducing Steve Buscemi’s Tony Blundetto four years into the show’s run. It happened on The Wire, where the character Michael Lee, who would play a pivotal role in the show’s narrative, wasn’t brought on board until the penultimate season. Breaking Bad did it so well that one of its later additions, Saul Goodman, got his own spinoff.
The Toronto Raptors have introduced new characters to their own drama, too. And, like Tony, Michael, Saul and others before them, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin figure to be major parts of the Raptors’ story from here on out.
On the heels of the NBA’s all-star weekend, this is a busy and important week for the team, despite just one game on the schedule before the weekend. Of course, that game is a significant one: the return of DeMar DeRozan for the first and only time this season following the shocking trade that sent the lifelong Raptor to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
It began, officially, with a lively practice that ran for nearly two hours on Wednesday night.
Afterwards, the new guys — Gasol, Lin, former Raptors 905 standout Malcolm Miller, and recent signee Jodie Meeks — along with sophomore Chris Boucher stayed on the court, going through several plays in the team’s halfcourt set.
Assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren was the quizmaster, calling out a series of play names and guiding the players through as they attempted, mostly successfully, to execute the various sets they’ve been working to memorize since joining the team — all in an attempt to get up to speed in time for the stretch run of the regular season.
There are only 23 games left on the schedule — blink and you might miss them — but it’s hard to look past the next one.
Make no mistake — Friday’s game between the Raptors and visiting Spurs will certainly be a high-drama affair.
On Thursday, DeRozan, the former star player who pledged his allegiance to both the city and organization, will meet with reporters at a hotel in Toronto, facing a barrage of questions from the throng of local media for the first time since the trade last July.
Meanwhile, team president Masai Ujiri has been doing the American media tour ahead of Friday’s ESPN-televised game, and has been mostly sticking to the script he’s been reading from since last summer. “We had done the same thing for a long time and we had gotten to a certain stage, and sometimes in sports you have to make that change,” he said on ESPN’s Get Up! Wednesday morning.
Gasol, the 34-year old veteran who adds big-game experience and a versatile skill-set to the Raptors, can understand the significance of Friday’s game, even if he doesn’t share the history with the former Raptor like some of his new teammates. But, after playing his entire career for one organization, the Memphis Grizzlies, prior to being traded in the waning hours of the trade deadline two weeks ago today, he can see the importance of Friday’s matchup.
“I can only imagine how many emotions — how weird it must feel to go into what’s pretty much your arena and then go into the other locker room,” Gasol says of what DeRozan will go through tomorrow. “But that’s part of the NBA. You have to adjust, you have to adapt. You have to evolve with the league and continue to accept the challenge in front of you. I think he’s done a really good job of leading and accepting his role in San Antonio, which is a little different than the one he had here. But he’s still a very productive and dominant player.”
That was certainly on full display the last time the Raptors played DeRozan’s Spurs, a one-sided blowout loss in San Antonio during which DeRozan registered a triple-double against his former club. It was in some ways a low-point on the Raptors season, a much-hyped, nationally-televised game in which Toronto looked shell-shocked from the opening tip-off and never stood a chance.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse quietly vows his team will respond differently this time around.
And as much as he’ll want to score a resounding win this time around, there are bigger things on the Raptors’ minds coming out of the all-star break.
Truth is, if it weren’t for Friday’s matchup, the trade would seem like a distant memory. So much has changed since then. New coach, new stars, new trajectory.
Nurse says the break helped him and his staff contemplate different ways to utilize their new-look roster, and particularly likes their malleability.
“I’m looking at our versatility as a group some more,” he says, mentioning playing Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Pascal Siakam together at times. “I think we may have found something there that is advantageous to our team as a whole. I can see us playing really big… and at other times playing small and fast. That’s what I want to be able to do.”
The latest roster move is the signing of 31-year-old shooting guard Jodie Meeks to a 10-day tryout contract. Meeks is a three-point specialist, with three NBA seasons of shooting over 40 per cent from deep to his name. He did not play in the league last season, but at Wednesday’s practice his abilities were apparent.
“Obviously he can shoot the ball,” Nurse observed. After news broke that the team had signed Meeks, the coach received a text from a friend and former NCAA assistant coach at Tennessee, who reminded Nurse that Meeks once scored 54 against his team while starring for Kentucky. “So,” Nurse says, “he can score a little bit.”
The all-star break helped to buy players like Gasol, Lin, and now Meeks, some time to study the Raptors’ playbook, but also put their integration with their new teammates briefly on pause.
“We were getting things going here a little bit, getting your feet wet…getting a little more comfortable with the plays and with the guys. And then you go into the break for five days and you’re away from each other,” says Gasol. “So now it’s a matter of building that back again and understanding what’s in front of us.”
What’s immediately in front of the Raptors is Friday’s drama-filled meeting with DeRozan’s Spurs, but beyond that there’s something far more substantial: an opportunity to compete for a spot in the Finals.
And as Nurse surveys his team — one that looks and feels dramatically different than this time last year — he likes what he sees, which is a team that he feels can adapt to any scenario.
“What I like is that our team feels like we can get ourselves out of a lot of jams,” he said. “I like that. I want to continue to go out there, and whatever presents itself — whatever pace the game is played at, whatever style, whatever we see — that we can handle with some swag, some confidence, and some ‘it’s going to be OK in the end.’ I like where we’re heading in that direction.”