Raptors in prime position heading into seeding games

Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol (33) and guard Norman Powell (24) celebrate a three-point basket. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

They got through it, and now they’re on the other side.

How far up the mountain they can climb is in their hands, and all of those hands will be on deck for a change.

That’s all these three exhibition games were ever going to be about as the NBA as a whole and the Toronto Raptors in particular roused themselves from a four-month, mid-season, pandemic-induced hibernation.

After their 117-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns Tuesday afternoon, the Raptors fell to 2-1 in exhibition play at the Wide World of Disney Resort, where 22 teams have centralized and – providing the coronavirus doesn’t have more to say about the 2019-20 season than it already has – one will leave in October as champion.

The Raptors fully expect – and rightly so — that they will be the one.

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Their NBA title defence briefly looked like it could be snatched from them by circumstances well beyond anything they or anyone else could control, but is now set to begin in earnest.

It’s hard to imagine they won’t be ready, even if their showing against the Suns might indicate otherwise.

A better indication will come Saturday when the Raptors open their eight-game playoff seeding schedule against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

It can’t come soon enough.

After the initial thrill of basketball being back, even three games in it was evident that it wasn’t all the way back – missing was urgency, adrenaline and a clear sense of purpose.

“I think I’m glad there isn’t any more of these, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, without any argument. “I think we’ve gone one too far with these … certainly [based on] our mindset or the way we played tonight.

“But it’s okay. Listen, we again didn’t have a lot of great, engaged play tonight, and it showed up in transition defence and contesting shots and missed assignments and things like that,” he said. “But it’s so meaningless that you can kind of wash it away pretty quick and hopefully we’ll have their attention here for a few days of practice, which I’m sure we will, and we’ll get some things ironed out and then we get to see come Saturday night what the deal is.”

Despite the result against the youthful Suns – the longest of longshots to even qualify for the playoffs out of the seeding games –- the Raptors couldn’t be better positioned.

Goal number one was to get through the exhibition games healthy and goal two was to get all of the key pieces ramped up for more intense competition to come.

It was success on both counts as Nurse was able to get all of what would project to be the top seven players in his rotation at least 20 minutes of playing time, topped by Pascal Siakam, who used his 26 minutes to lead the Raptors in scoring with 17 points, including 4-of-5 from three.

Only depth wing defender Patrick McCaw’s status is in doubt as he deals with an undisclosed injury.

And even in what was a mess of a game, from the Raptors point of view – they made 28 turnovers, or more than double their season average – there were plenty of encouraging bigger picture signs.

Marc Gasol has been a bit of a mystery all year given hamstring problems that limited him to 36 of the Raptors’ first 64 games. He didn’t play in the first exhibition game and clocked an inconsequential 10 minutes in the second, but on Tuesday afternoon Gasol looked assertive and as ready to contribute as his leaned out physique would suggest.

He squared up for a three, blocked Suns big man Deandre Ayton at the rim and fired an elbow jumper all within the first couple of minutes.

He took four shots in his first five minutes – a positive indicator of his level of offensive engagement, even if he only knocked down the one jumper in the first half. He banged a three in the second half and finished with five points, nine rebounds and a pair of assists.

Oh, and defensively Gasol still has it. He held Ayton — a 20-and-10 machine in the regular season — to seven points and six rebounds on 3-of-8 shooting. Just a warm-up for another potential playoff matchup against Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid?

Could be.

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Another minor concern – and we’re reaching here – was Norman Powell’s missing offence, and that was addressed too.

After going 1-of-10 from three in the first two games and shooting just 7-of-21 overall, Powell looked like the pre-pandemic breakout scoring threat off the bench again.

He finished with 14 points on 11 shots but it was the nature of some of his six makes: one triple from the top while waving away any screens late in the clock; another pulling up from the break in transition, another bouncing through traffic in the lane – trademarks of Powell playing with peak confidence.

“Obviously taking so much time off, the flow, the feel, the rhythm, the balance of the way you were before — it is going to take time to get all that back,” said Powell, who was the last player to be named Eastern Conference player of the week before the NBA went on hiatus as of March 11. “ So just go out there and play and let it all out. You are going to make mistakes, miss shots, turn the ball over, whatever as you try to get back into the flow of how you were playing before.

“Each game you try to take a little something from it,” said Powell of his rough start. “… As long as I was getting good looks and shooting it with confidence it was just move on to the next game. I’ve made those shots millions of times so it’s not anything [to panic over]. Today I felt a little better. A little more pop in my legs, a little more feel, a little more flow.”

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The current will be picking up shortly. The Raptors’ opponents for their eight seeding games have a collective winning percentage of .638, which makes theirs the most difficult schedule among the 22 teams in the bubble.

But they have some advantages – a three-game lead in second place in the East over the third-place Boston Celtics, and the confidence of having won an NBA title not too long ago.

That’s what informs everything the Raptors do as the season turns the corner and finally begins to join heavy traffic.

A tough afternoon against the Suns in the last exhibition game before they begin to play games that matter simply can’t be that big a deal, and it would be a mistake to make it so.

Nurse doesn’t make that kind of mistake and his players won’t either.

How long until the memory of a sideways afternoon at Disney gets flushed from the Raptors’ collective memory?

“Right after the game ended,” said Powell. “We’ll obviously talk about it and about how we can improve and get better but we take it for what it is and move on to the next one. It’s real come Saturday, so we can’t focus too much on this one. We’ll take the learning (lessons) that we can and see how we can get better for the actual seeding games and get ready for the real deal.”

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