Raptors forced to adjust after COVID causes detour down familiar road

Toronto Raptors' Scottie Barnes controls the ball during a NBA team scrimmage in London, Ont., Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (CP/file)

The Toronto Raptors weren’t supposed to be practising on Thursday. They weren’t supposed to be gathering their young players again in the evening for a shooting clinic.

Instead, they were supposed to be hosting the Chicago Bulls and old friend DeMar DeRozan at Scotiabank Arena. But then came the reminder that 2021 isn’t over just yet. The Bulls had two games cancelled due to a COVID outbreak and the Raptors unexpectedly had some free time on their hands.

So, they practised, and they got their heads around the notion that for the short term at least, things are going to be different, or maybe a little more the same, if your point of reference was the strangeness of last season when the league had 33 COVID-related postponements.

It’s not something anyone wants – for the players it will mean more testing, more restrictions away from the court and potentially more risk as the latest wave seems to be sweeping through the NBA and (more significantly) the general population.

It will also mean a ceiling of 50 per cent capacity at Scotiabank Arena, beginning with Saturday’s game against the Golden State Warriors.

But there’s no escaping it.

So, take a minute to reflect on the fact that yes, it sucks, and then deal with it, was Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s eminently sensible take:

“I’m like anybody, everybody’s got a moment of balancing out being disappointed because you want things to stay the way they are or improve and they’re just not right now,” he said Thursday. “[But] common sense prevails always with your wishes or your hopes and you gotta just adjust your mindset a little bit. [It] takes you a little bit to let that move through you. ... (But) the game’s still there to be played and we need do our best, most professional job with that.”

He looked similarly on life getting more complicated after being able to move more freely for the past three or four months. He said the Raptors have been ahead of the [under discussion] NBA and NBPA’s mandates on ramping up testing and protocols. It’s not anyone’s first choice, but again, consider the alternative: “Yeah, you’re first reaction is ‘Ah, more testing’ and you get over that after about one day or five minutes or whatever and realize that you’re doing the right thing.

“I just think it’s all of ours – our organization, whatever – duty to do the utmost we can so we can keep everyone as safe as possible.”


The Raptors did get some good news on Thursday as they had a practice with as close to their full team as they have had at any point this season.

Dalano Banton is back and in good form after being held out of a game-and-a-half due to an unspecified though not COVID-related illness; while Khem Birch (knee), OG Anunoby (hip) and Precious Achiuwa (shoulder, health-and-safety protocols) were all at practice. They will continue to be listed as "questionable," Nurse said, until everyone is satisfied they come through consecutive practice days with no ill-effects.

Remarkably, the Raptors have yet to have Birch, Anunoby, Siakam and Yuta Watanabe – three starters and potentially their sixth man – available for a single game this season.


The Raptors were in Brooklyn when the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry was just across the bridge in Madison Square Garden setting the NBA record for made threes in a their win over the New York Knicks. It was interesting to hear Raptors guard Fred VanVleet reflect on Curry’s impact on the game and on his own place in the NBA as a smaller player who has used the ability to shoot from well beyond the three-point line to carve out a niche and then thrive.

“He's made it possible for me to be in the NBA first and foremost ... I’m not sure my career would look the same if I wasn't allowed to take the threes that I'm allowed to take and work on my game that way, to be able to expand my game,” said VanVleet, who is on pace to break Kyle Lowry’s Raptors record of 238 made threes in a season. “I remember being in college, me and my assistant coach ... we would watch their games, we would study his film and we would go work out and try to see how we could implement some of the things, and obviously he's got a special gift in terms of shooting the ball, but it's more than that as a player. ... Steph is definitely one of those guys that I've taken a lot from to try to add to as best as I can.”


Late-game offense has been a challenge for the Raptors at times this season – most notably how their offense sputtered down the stretch against the undermanned Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night, where they shot just 35 per cent in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime.

On the season, they’ve been more than respectable with an offensive rating of 115.9, which is eighth in the league and better than their overall offensive rating of 109.6, which is 11th. Given the Raptors' injury issues and that they lack what would be commonly defined as a high-end closer, that their offense ticks up late in close games is no mean feat.

Nurse says that while some players are more willing and able to take the kind of difficult shots that can be needed in late-game, late-clock situations, having more guys on the floor who are comfortable in the moment is something they work on.

“I do try to evaluate it. We actually do quite a bit of it in drill work,” he said. “You can see the level at which guys can do it. It’s not an easy thing. There are several layers to it. One is getting the rhythm of it. Can you get a shot off? Some guys – when guys are draped on them – can squeeze shots off, and that’s really important. The worst thing is to not get a shot at all. That’s a tough skill to have [to get off contested shots]. Not everyone has that skill.

“The other part for me is: I’ve always thought there’s a way to exploit matchups or go with guys that people aren’t expecting as well. I probably tend to believe in too many people [having a chance at the last shot] versus the other way around. It’s always kind of been that way. It’s something we practise and try to coach up.”

The key also, said VanVleet, who had an 18-footer to win the game in regulation but missed everything, is to stay calm and have a short memory.

“You just got to be in those situations and see what works,” he said. “I mean, I've made big shots. I air-balled the other night, you know, it's the way it goes, like I've made some and I’ve missed some, you know? Sometimes you're the hero sometimes you get talked about for a couple of days, and then it wears off you go to the next game, so I definitely was able to laugh about it and you know, get joked on about it by my people, but it just comes with the territory.

“I think it's a mental thing and just having the approach that if you put the work in and your teammates believe in you, your coaches believe in you, you go out there and give it your best and the rest, will fall where it falls.”


Golden State (23-5) plays Friday night against the Boston Celtics before travelling to Toronto. According to reports, they may rest veteran stars Steph Curry and Draymond Green and maybe others against the Raptors. Golden State hasn’t played in Toronto since Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. The Warriors' Andrew Wiggins hasn’t played in his home market since Jan. 30, 2018. The Warriors called up Klay Thompson and James Wiseman from their G-League team on Wednesday, causing speculation that the veteran sharpshooter and the second-year big were poised to make their return from long-term injuries, but the latest is that it may be until after Christmas before they take the floor.

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