These are the dog days of the pre-season.
The Toronto Raptors season opener is still more than a week away and by Wednesday night in Montreal when the Raptors meet the Brooklyn Nets, Toronto will have gone more than a week between games against NBA competition.
The upside is a lot of practice time and opportunity to introduce new concepts and fine tune them; the down side is the desire to hurry up and start the season already.
“That’s part of the anticipation and part of the excitement of it is we’ve beat up on each other enough,” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. “[I] think I’ve taken enough illegal screens from Serge [Ibaka] in the last week or so to last me all season, so, I’m looking forward to getting out there and [seeing] another team, a team that we aren’t as familiar with as we are with ourselves.”
This is just the second year where NBA training camps have been trimmed from a month to three weeks, part of the league’s effort to inject more rest days into the regular season by borrowing time from what always seemed to be an unnecessarily long pre-season.
But even with the regular season cut back there seems like plenty of time to prepare, even for a team like the Raptors who are integrating two significant pieces – Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green – into an otherwise stable rotation. Part of it is because the Raptors essentially train and practice in some shape or form intermittently throughout the summer, and part of it is because with just five exhibition games, there have been a lot of practices.
“It’s enough [time],” said VanVleet who is starting his third NBA season. “I prefer the [fewer] games, honestly, as a player. My first year, I needed the nine games because I was trying to make the team, but as a guy who is on the roster you prefer less games, more practice, more work and kind of less pounding on your body, travel, stuff like that. Five is enough.”
Danny Green is starting his 10th NBA season but his first with Toronto after eight with San Antonio. He’s feeling like he’ll be ready, but doesn’t expect the Raptors will be a finished product by the time the season starts. Instead, the goal is that the outline of what they can become should be visible.
“You want the chemistry to build within practice first, obviously, because you want to be ready and kinda be perfect the first game of the season,” said Green. “But nobody’s gonna be perfect, nobody’s gonna be ready. But you want it to build up throughout the games, throughout the practices … I think most teams kind of gauge where they are about 20 to 30 games in and that’s kinda where guys should feel more comfortable consistently and kind of gel.”
It’s perhaps of little surprise that first-year head coach Nick Nurse wouldn’t mind a little more time to work with, but that’s a function of coaching more than any concern that the season opener (Oct. 17th) is coming on too soon.
“I think when there was another week we always felt like we didn’t have enough time. And now that there’s not we still feel like we don’t have enough time,” said Nurse after the Raptors practice at their training facility on Thanksgiving Monday. “It’s just kind of general pre-season feelings. I feel good about where we are. We’ve had to go out there and play a couple times. I know they’re pre-season games. We haven’t even put in some out-of-bounds plays, and believe it or not they figure out how to get the ball from out of bounds to inbounds and things like that. We’re OK. We’re working hard at putting some things back in here this last week. We’ll be ready to play.”
The closest thing they’ll have to a full-dress rehearsal will likely come against the Nets at the Bell Centre Wednesday in Montreal. The Raptors fifth and final pre-season game is Thursday in New Orleans and given it’s the second night of a back-to-back and follows a long, late flight, Nurse said he didn’t anticipate his veteran core playing extended minutes, so the Nets game will be his last chance to see how things fit before things start to count.
To this point training camp has gone roughly to script, the primary exception being second-year wing OG Anunoby having to leave the team on the eve of their first exhibition game due to a family emergency. He was back at practice on Monday and looked great, according to Nurse. Seeing where he fits in among a versatile wing rotation that includes Leonard, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam will be a focus.
“Those three, four, five spots are really what we’re rotating around,” said Nurse. “We’ve already kind of established that Kyle [Lowry] and Delon Wright, Fred and Delon, Delon and Fred, those guys can both play one, two together. So I think, for instance, if Kawhi and OG are on the floor together, hopefully they’re going to be interchangeable at the three, four. [It] shouldn’t really matter much, right, who’s playing play four on offence, who’s playing four on defence. It shouldn’t matter much and they should be [interchangeable] depending on what happens.”