Scola could be Raptors’ X-factor against LeBron, Cavs

They may not know it, but Luis Scola is having a major influence on his younger teammates (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The Toronto Raptors are finally home again, although the visit is a bit booby-trapped in that their reward as they approach the end of their road-heavy first month is a date at the Air Canada Centre with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It’s the new-look Raptors’ first chance to test themselves against the reigning Eastern Conference champs. It’s a chance to see if – with the addition of the likes of prized perimeter stopper DeMarre Carroll – Toronto can finally get a handle on James, who has mostly toyed with the Raptors for his entire career.

But don’t be surprised if Luis Scola emerges as a difference maker. He’s already proven to be one this season for the Raptors, even if his one-year deal for $3 million signed in the off-season screamed: “veteran depth.”

Instead Scola has been a starter since midway through pre-season and 15 games into the season is proving one of the 9-6 Raptors’ most important additions.

“He is an old-head player,” says Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “He senses what the team needs in certain situations whether it’s rebounding, passing, shooting the ball. He’s just one of those guys who has been there so many times before that the game is slow for him. He sees it before it happens.”

For Scola it’s as simple as letting the game come to him, a habit he’s developed over a professional career that is in its 20th year – with nine spent in the NBA – while also carving out one of the most significant international basketball resumes of anyone who has ever played.

He’s as comfortable having the fate of an entire nation on his thick shoulders as he is sliding into gaps and hitting jump shots when the defence forgets about him while chasing the likes of Kyle Lowry around.

“He’s the most professional guy I’ve ever met,” Pepe Sanchez, Scola’s longtime national team teammate, told me earlier this year. “He was three years younger than us (on the Argentinean national team), but he grew to be a tremendous leader, a tremendous player and had tremendous values about how the game should be played, every time, every session, every practice and that’s huge. Those guys are extinct right now, (the Raptors) are very lucky to have him.”

The first hint that Scola might bring more than anticipated came in the fourth game of the season against the Dallas Mavericks when he scored 19 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and broke out his new three-point shot – he’s hit more threes (11) this season than he had in his entire career prior to the campaign – to help ice a game that had been in doubt throughout the second half and open the Raptors’ first extended road trip on the right note.

It was a handy contribution given fellow starters Carroll and Terrence Ross had combined to contribute seven points. The next came against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. Having already lost three straight the Raptors came out sluggishly against the NBA’s worst team, giving up 57 to Philadelphia in the first half.

Perhaps sensing a lack of urgency, the big Argentinean scored 15 of his 21 points in the third quarter to help break the game open and get the Raptors back to their winning ways.

Another impressive outing came last week in Utah. Playing against the youthful Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back and at altitude, with the heartbreak of their loss to the Golden State Warriors fresh in their minds, Toronto was down nine and on the verge of being run out of the building by Utah before Scola scored 12 points in the last five minutes of the first half to give Toronto a 45-42 lead and the belief this was a game to win.

So it was no surprise that Scola’s next big effort game on the final leg of the Raptors’ fraught five-game West Coast road trip against the Los Angeles Clippers, which was also Toronto’s first game without Jonas Valanciunas, out for six weeks with a fractured left hand.

Playing centre for long stretches as the Raptors displayed a smaller lineup that might become standard in Valanciunas’ absence, Scola scored eight of his 20 in the first quarter as the Raptors jumped out to a big early lead and then six more in the last five minutes of the fourth to help hold off a Clippers comeback and preserve a 2-3 West Coast trip.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise if Scola finds a way to fill-in some unanticipated gap tonight against the Cavaliers.

“He’s been a leader for us just through his experience,” says Casey, who credited Scola for speaking up at halftime against the Clippers, loudly warning his teammates to guard against a second-half letdown after Toronto built up a 29-point halftime lead.

“When they’re keying on DeMar or keying on Kyle he steps up and takes what the game is giving him. It’s never forced, it’s what makes him the veteran player he is.”

The only person who thinks none of this is noteworthy is Scola, who turned professional at 15, left home for Spain at 17 and has won an Olympic Gold medal and a World Championship silver, not to mention four MVP awards at the FIBA Tournament of the Americas, including the most recent one in Mexico City.

“When you play well, you play more and when you play bad, you play less and that’s the way it should be,” Scola says of his role as a starter in Toronto after two seasons coming off the bench with Indiana. “It’s been pretty much what I expected. I knew if I showed up in good shape and did good things I’d have more opportunities and if I didn’t, I’d have less, and that’s what happened.

“The situation changes, I adapt, I prepare mentally for it and I just play.”

It’s tempting to compare him to Jorge Garbajosa, the rugged Spanish forward who was so quietly instrumental during his first season in Toronto in 2006-07 before he broke his leg, but Scola provides more consistent offence than Garbo ever did, and seems to be able to summon it at moments when his team needs it the most.

If there’s a mystery, it’s why the Raptors were able to get him at such an affordable rate and so late in the free agency process. And it’s not like the Raptors had targeted him in one of general manager Masai Ujiri’s ninja moves.

He was available, the Raptors had a need to fill in some of the minutes left behind by Amir Johnson and they reached out to Scola. He was expected to be a backup but he won the starting job in training camp and has never looked back.

He routinely beats faster, younger players down the floor simply by recognizing transition sooner. He claims his fitness level is better now than it was when he was younger.

“In these days in the NBA being physically fit is crucial,” he said on Tuesday after being one of the last Raptors off the court following practice. “The game is so athletic you have to be able to run up and down the court and you have to be able to do it every day and do it for a long period of time. You just have to. The older you get the more you need your habits to as close to perfect as possible … that’s just the way it has to be if you want to survive in this league.”

Except Scola’s not surviving, he’s thriving, much to the Raptors’ benefit.

“He has the passion,” says Sanchez, his old teammate from Argentina. “He wants to play all the ball he can play until he retires. He’s said it from the beginning, he was going to play until the wheels fall off and he’s going to do it.”

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