NBA Restart Recap: Raptors remind the world why they’re reigning champions

Kyle Lowry talks with the media about the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers kneeling during the playing of the American and Canadian national anthems.

Going from no NBA games to think about to a Christmas Day-inspired schedule with games on nonstop is a beautiful breed of jarring.

It’s also a recipe for missing moments and losing sight of what’s taken place because there’s always something new actively occurring.

This past weekend marked the NBA’s first since COVID-19 paused its season and tilted the world from its axis. A lot happened. These are some moments worth remembering as the season races toward, hopefully, being able to crown a champion.

Black Lives Matter

The day America said its final farewell to John Lewis — the son of sharecroppers who spent his life fighting for racial equality across the Jim Crow South, and went on to become known as the moral compass of Congress and a towering civil rights icon — NBA players knelt, arms locked, during the national anthem. It was the first night of the NBA’s restart. The unified message could not have been clearer: Black lives matter.

When the Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors squared off on Saturday, the message resonated beyond the American border, too, as both teams knelt during the Canadian anthem as well.

“It’s a big statement,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said afterwards. “I think we just wanted to treat it [kneeling for both anthems] as one. You know, our problems in the States might be a little bit deeper than what we deal with in Canada, but I think speaking with Chris Boucher and Oshae [Brissett] and some of our Canadian staff members, [we] just want to acknowledge that it does exist everywhere and we’re going to stand against it whether we be in the States or in Canada.

“…I think that was just an act of solidarity to stand against all types of racism all over the world.”

Not all players and coaches have taken part in the act of kneeling, and there’s a message to be gleaned from that, too.

Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac was the first not to, telling reporters that his faith informed his choice. Meyers Leonard said he agonized over the decision of whether to kneel or stand, torn between wanting to make a resoundingly clear statement that he stands with Black lives and his deep-rooted connection to the military. San Antonio Spurs coaches Gregg Popovich and Becky Hammon stood, too.

To see Popovich stand was both surprising and expected. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy who served five years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force before becoming head coach of the Spurs. It’s reasonable to believe that played a part in his decision, even if he refused to say so explicitly.

“I’d prefer to keep that to myself,” Popovich said of his decision when asked after the game. “Everybody has to make a personal decision. The league’s been great about that; everybody has the freedom to react any way they want.”

On the surface, though, standing is at odds with how vocal Popovich has been about America’s issues with race, denouncing U.S. president Donald Trump for his inability to “say simply that Black Lives Matter,” and encouraging Americans to reckon with the country’s racist history — and the way it continues to affect the present. With Popovich’s military history, the message of him kneeling could have echoed through different corners in America. It’s fair to wish he had done that. But it’s also important to remember imperfect allies for a cause can still be allies.

On Sunday, when asked about Marco Belinelli’s status for the Spurs’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Popovich instead delivered a history lesson about how the Confederate South disenfranchised Black voters.

Advocacy isn’t static. It evolves with the advocates, and the NBA’s first weekend back gave the world a glimpse of how its players would ensure box scores didn’t overshadow the simple, essential message that Black lives matter.

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair,” Lewis wrote on Twitter in 2018. “Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Lewis didn’t get a chance to see the good trouble players have gotten into so far in Orlando, but the work of his life, the fight he fought until his last days, lives on and continues in their advocacy.

The road to the NBA championship runs through Toronto

The early conclusion to be drawn from the Toronto Raptors’ bubble debut against the Los Angeles Lakers is simple: The Raptors are still NBA Champions.

Until someone beats them, that will continue to be true. And beating them four times in seven games will be daunting for every team tasked with trying.

“I mean, they won a championship for a reason,” LeBron James told reporters after his Lakers lost to the Raptors 107-92 on Saturday. “And it wasn’t just all solely because of Kawhi and obviously you see that.”

For observers who followed the Raptors’ title run and subsequent defence, that isn’t news. Kawhi Leonard elevated the Raptors to a championship and it was never just about Leonard — two things can be true at once, and often are.

Toronto’s defence held opponents to an average of 106.3 points per game this season, the best in the NBA. The Lakers scored on just 35.4 per cent of their attempts. James had 20 points and was stifled by the ascendant OG Anunoby. Anthony Davis had only 14, including a season-low one point in the first half. As a team, Los Angeles shot 10-of-40 from long range.

Consistent, adaptable defence helps airbrush volatile offensive nights. Toronto has that in excess. With Anunoby and Siakam on the wings, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka manning the middle, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet on the perimeter and a bench filled with interchangeable pieces, Nick Nurse can invent a plan for any situation.

The Champs are still here, in case anyone forgot.

Livestream the Raptors' quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.

Jimmy Butler and the temptation to speculate

Jimmy Butler missed the Miami Heat‘s practice on Sunday. In a pre-bubble world — despite the wide-ranging reasons why a player could miss practice — a star being absent would invite speculation over whether or not they’re hurt. Post-COVID, that speculation takes on an even more anxiety-inducing form.

Jae Crowder, Butler’s teammate, amplified those anxieties.

“We want to talk to him as soon as he gets out of quarantine or whatever he’s in,” Crowder said. “It’s just a next-man-up mentality from a standpoint of staying locked in and engaged, because we know he’s locked in and engaged once he’s able to get back with us.

“It’s definitely a curveball for all of us to hear stuff like what’s going on with him. You never know what to expect.”

“Quarantine or whatever he’s in” was vague enough to simultaneously confirm nothing and play on our collective worst fears. After almost half a year of living in a COVID-19 world, the mental association between quarantine and coronavirus is firmly established. We’re primed to hear one and think the other. Which makes it all the more important to remember that the entirety of what could be labelled a known fact was this: Butler was not with the Heat when the team practiced on Sunday.

Perhaps he had a false positive. Perhaps he had a cough when he woke up in the morning and, out of an abundance of caution, self-isolated. Perhaps it had nothing to do with coronavirus at all and he just needed a morning off.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra later confirmed all players would be available for Miami’s Monday afternoon game against Toronto, Butler included.

Being curious is essential. Being suspicious and critical of non-answers is, too. But conclusions can’t be based on the mere absence of information. Butler’s missed practice is an opportunity to remember the importance of taking a breath and pausing before the temptation to speculate wins out.

Sign up for Raptors newsletters
Get the best of our Raptors coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

Raptors Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

The unique greatness of DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan may never be quite enough to lead a team to an NBA championship. His Toronto years suggested as much. So does his tenure with the Spurs. But on any given night, he could be enough to win a game — even if that win cuts it close.

Last night the full breadth and depth of the DeRozan experience was on display. Every game in the bubble for the Spurs is a must-win, and with the clock winding down against the Grizzlies — the incumbent eight seed in what’s shaping up to be a photo-finish race for the right to play the Lakers in the first round — DeRozan did what he does best.

He drove left, crossed right, pulled up and faded away with grace, sinking a late shot to give the Spurs a lead. Jarren Jackson Jr. responded on the very next possession for the Grizzlies, draining a contested corner three with 10.6 seconds left that was reminiscent of Ray Allen crushing San Antonio’s title hopes in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals to tie the game.

Enter, DeRozan once more. He brought the ball down the court — his eyes making it known that his hands will be the ones that decide how the possession ends, and the game with it. He hesitated at the top of the arc, and did the same pump-fake he’s done every night for the last decade. It worked.

DeRozan drained the free-throws and San Antonio moved into ninth in the West, prolonging the hope of extending their 22-year playoff streak for at least another day.

There are no home teams, but ‘home’ teams keep winning

In an Orlando-based bubble, with only virtual fans in attendance, with no travel or time zone changes, there should be no home-court advantage.

So far though, teams designated as the home team have gone 9-2. There’s no conclusion to be drawn from this yet. The sample size is too small to infer anything beyond there being a correlation between being a ‘home’ team and winning.

As the sample grows, though, it will be a trend to keep an eye on and excavate further — especially as playoff spots and ‘home’ court advantage are locked into place.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.