Raptors’ first Disney practice an important ‘jumping off point’

Basketball Central breaks down the Toronto Raptors chances and strategies for when the NBA returns to play, pointing out that this team's championship was not a fluke, and they're ready to go for another.

Quarantine? Isolation? Nasal swabs?

The Toronto Raptors have got all that down. Practice makes perfect.

Since the NBA season was halted on March 11 the Raptors have been poked, prodded and kept apart from one another, even when they were together.

Saturday afternoon at Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando, they finally got to play basketball, as a team, together.

We’re talking about practice. A real, live basketball practice.

“It felt good, it felt good, it’s been awhile,” said guard Fred VanVleet after the Raptors wrapped up an afternoon workout. “I think you saw some rust, some excitement and that first day of school type of thing for everybody, coaches and players, it was good, it was good, we’ve got to flush some things out these next couple of weeks and get ready to play, but kind of take a marathon approach still, we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Saturday was their first practice in preparation for the resumption of the regular season with their game against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Aug. 1, the first of eight ‘seeding’ games they will play to conclude the regular season in advance of the playoffs.

But they’ve come a long way just to get here. Their final hurdle was to be tested twice for coronavirus roughly 24 hours apart from when they arrived at Disney World in their team bus emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’ from their two-week mini-camp in Naples, Fla.

A negative test for the COVID-19 virus would have been a setback not only for the individuals involved but the entire return-to-play undertaking as the NBA has gathered 22 teams in what they hope in an antiseptic environment to conclude the 2019-20 season and crown a champion sometime in October.

It’s all become routine by now.

“I would say that’s become part of what you do [being tested],” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think the first couple times we did it here and certainly going way back to March 11 when we went off and got tested, your level of anxiety was a lot higher then for sure. But I think it’s always cross your fingers, knock on wood, good thoughts all that stuff every time.”

The Raptors got word mid-morning that everyone in their 37-member travelling party had passed both tests. One more hurdle standing between them and the defence of their 2019 championship successfully crossed.

If the tests keep coming back negative the Raptors can fully focus on the task at hand and maybe even begin to sample some of the comforts the NBA has made available for the players in what is stacking up as a long, lavish summer camp, with everything from haircuts, manicures, fishing trips and golf outings as part of the non-basketball activities available.

But basketball is the main draw. They just had one last 36-hour quarantine to will their way through.

“I’m definitely used to quarantine. I’ve been quarantining for like months in my house. I didn’t get out for like three months or two months, so I’m used to it; two days is nothing,” said Raptors all-star forward Pascal Siakam. “It went by quick. I found things to do, like video games, anything I can do to let time fly. And just being ready mentally and being excited about being back together as a team.”

“[But] we just wanna play,” he added. “I miss playing basketball. It definitely [feels] like a basketball atmosphere, and that’s all I really care about.”

It’s up to Nurse to figure out how to get his team up to speed on the fly in unusual circumstances.

With his team having been limited to individual workouts only for the past six weeks Nurse decided to make their first practice since early March a relatively low key outing, putting the emphasis on five-on-five work and getting up and down against some semblance of competition rather than let the first day get dragged down by drills and corrections.

“Nick kept it pretty light,” said VanVleet. “Training camp is usually more intense and more serious I guess than when we have more time to kind of get ready for the rest of the season instead of getting ready for a whole season, it’s just a little different.

“And I think there’s a trust level with the team that we have, managing guys’ bodies, injuries and just looking ahead, I think it’ll be a smoother approach rather than just trying to jump right back in and ramp it all the way up right away.”

It’s a new situation for everyone, coaches included.

“I’m just really trying to feel my way through it now, to be honest with you,” said Nurse. “I had some thoughts about, you know, what the structure of the practice would look like and we did it totally different than we normally would. Again just based on the situation I think it’s important for us to play… So I started heavier than normal and just told the guys to please self-monitor and let’s not get carried away, we got a long way to go here today.

“But you know again for the most part it was really good… I mean a lot of guys are doing a lot of things that that we normally do, just right from the get go here which was great.

“Obviously there was some rust and some things that stick out that you have to keep an eye on or that we’re gonna have to change, but from a starting point it seems like a really good jumping off point today for us.”

Jumping back in never felt so good.


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