One of the most memorable moments in modern NBA history was former Philadelphia 76ers legend Allen Iverson’s ‘we talkin’ ‘bout practice’ soliloquy delivered at the end of the 2001-02 season. It has lived on for 17 years in GIFs, memes and a seemingly endless range of pop culture references since.
The idea that one of the greatest players in NBA history could sound so nonchalant about what would seem to be an essential part of the job will never get old.
But Iverson was onto something.
Here we are nearly two decades later, and we’re still talking about practice or – as it relates to the Toronto Raptors – their lack of it.
Tuesday, Dec. 18th was a notable day in the Raptors’ season because it marked the club’s first practice in 10 days and just their third in a month.
Iverson would have loved it. For him, practices simply marked the inconsequential time between games in a long NBA season.
In the Raptors’ case there’s been little choice.
When the Raptors finished up their road trip in Denver on Sunday they led the NBA in games played and road games played. It’s been a smorgasbord for fans watching at home, with games coming in waves as the Raptors played 15 times in 27 days between Nov. 20th and Dec. 16th.
But sacrificed in all of that was practice time. It’s made the Raptors’ ability to keep grinding out wins – they went 10-5 overall and 7-3 on the road during their 15-game stretch while taking on some of the toughest teams in the league – all the more impressive. They get tested again Wednesday night when they host the 20-11 Indiana Pacers in their return to Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s not the easiest but you have to make your choice: are you taking some time to make sure they are conserving energy for the game or are you going to continue to grind and teach them?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
More often than not, the first-year NBA bench boss has chosen to have his players rested and alert rather than try to force-feed distracted minds and tired bodies.
“Right now we’re trying to keep things moving. We know it’s a long year, so we’re trying to teach as we go and go a little more slowly than we probably would like but it is what it is.”
Finding the balance between resting and pushing in an unrelenting 82-game schedule has been a top-line conversation within NBA circles for years now. Just last week the Chicago Bulls made headlines when they reportedly threatened to boycott what was supposed to be their fourth practice in a seven-day period (which included three games), as incoming head coach Jim Boylen tried to raise the standard for a team that was 5-19 when he took over.
Rest is the league’s new performance enhancer. This is the second season that the NBA has tried to inject more off days into the schedule by cutting down pre-season by a couple of weeks and adding the time to the regular season and thus trim down back-to-back games and stretches of three or four games in four or five nights.
But as an unintended consequence, a more even distribution of games means more potential practice days lost to travel or rest as well: Monday and Tuesday of this week was just the fourth time this season the Raptors have had more than one day off between games and it should be noted that in this case the Raptors’ ‘day off’ on Monday was spent flying home from Denver.
“It’s the little things [you lose out on],” said Raptors forward CJ Miles, who has seen the emphasis on rest take on much greater significance during his 14-year career. “Talking game plans and that kind of stuff – the big picture – that’s easy to keep doing. It’s the little things – box-out drills or defensive shell drills. Being able to see things on a daily basis makes things easier. And then the amount of work you’re able to do as a unit helps your team.”
For Nurse it’s a constant adjustment. He’s been a head coach for 23 years at various levels and was an assistant for five years in Toronto before taking over the top job. He has volumes of information and detail he’d love to download into his team but has opted to take a measured approach – quality over quantity.
Several times since the Raptors’ schedule intensified the team has either cancelled a scheduled practice, made it optional, or chosen not to practice on days when the schedule would have allowed for it. The Raptors didn’t practice the day they left on their recent west coast trip and didn’t practice on either of their off days on the road. Players still come in and train – lifting or getting treatment or doing individual skill or conditioning work – but they can come and go on their timetable and there is no formal group work. Much of that has been transferred to shootarounds or pre-game walk-throughs instead. Technology helps as players can watch relevant video clips on their laptops at home in minutes rather than watching film in bigger batches as a group.
“We do a pretty good job on game day,” said Nurse. “It’s hard between games when you’ve just come off a tough game and you have another one coming up, it’s hard to get a whole lot of juice out of them physically or mentally … but we’ve been pretty good on game day with a lot of good attention and good pace and just good work. It’s not the easiest but you have to make your choice: are you taking some time to make sure they are conserving energy for the game or are you going to continue to grind and teach them?”
Nurse is fortunate that he’s got a talented, veteran team. One of the most underrated skills a high-level NBA player needs to have is the ability to pick up and retain information on the fly. They don’t have the luxury of drilling details over and over again in practice – the NBA is a class full of gifted kids and if struggling players don’t seek the extra help they need, they’ll inevitably fall behind.
Danny Green is one of the smartest players in the NBA, and the 10-year veteran still puts in extra time to make sure he’s on point because he’s learned that if you expect to get by on what you do in practice – if and when you have them – you’ll fall short.
“It’s a lot of team film work, individual film work and talking with each other at walk-throughs,” Green claims is the key to surviving without a heavy practice schedule. “Shootarounds help. Shootarounds are more like practices now. … [But] the biggest thing in our league – most pro leagues — is people think guys are dumb. You have to have a very high IQ.
“Things have to come fast. There are a lot of talented people out here but the biggest thing that is going to help you is watching film and studying your game and studying your opponent. You have to know in a second or two who you’re guarding, who you are closing out to, what his strengths and weaknesses are; do they want to go right or left? What’s their go-to move? You may not guard someone all game and then you have to know: what does [Pacers guard] Cory Joseph do? What about Darren Collison or Victor Oladipo? What are we doing with them in pick-and-roll? Who is setting the pick?
“You have to have your mind sharp and ready.”
Practice certainly helps, however. The Raptors have struggled in a number of their losses with shaky execution late in close games, which is hardly surprising given that they have three new starters, a first-year head coach, several players in new roles and a steady stream of injuries that have forced Nurse to tinker with his rotation.
“Just the set pieces,” Nurse said when asked where he noticed the lack of practice time the most. “There’s some [sets] in that you know, but if a couple of pieces have changed because of injury, you don’t know them anymore. We spent a lot of time today just doing reps [or plays] and guys are like ‘I remember when we put that in, but I haven’t heard it for a while.”
Said Miles: “Some plays – no matter how many times you run them in here 5-0 you don’t run them in a game because the situation never comes up and then it does and it’s been seven games since your last practice … it’s hard. There’s a lot that goes into it so it’s nice to have that time.”
But there’s a reason (among many) Iverson remains an iconic figure among most NBA players. Deep down they can relate: Practice may be necessary, but less is more.
“I love to play more than we practice,” says Green. “I have no complaints about that at all and I think everyone would agree with that, too. It’s better to play games.”