Over the course of the Toronto Raptors’ championship run, there were many times when things could have gone the other way.
Kawhi Leonard’s bounce shot in Game 7 of the East semis is the most vivid moment that comes to mind, but let’s focus on the intangibles not named luck for a second. Serge Ibaka put aside his personal aspirations despite a stellar season as a starter for the good of the team. Marc Gasol made no issues when he was first traded to the team and was coming off the bench. Kawhi took no issue with head coach Nick Nurse calling him out publicly, and Danny Green didn’t air any public grievances over Fred VanVleet starting the second halves of the NBA Finals ahead of him. Kyle Lowry put aside his best friend getting dealt because he understood that this was his best chance at the gold ball.
“Experience. I think any experience that you go through in life, it’s positive,” Gasol said when asked about what could be taken away from last season’s run. “Either it ends good or bad, you’re always going to take the positives or take the negatives and turn them into positives and learn. From the experience from last year, you can learn a thousand things, from how to manage emotions, how to stay in the moment, how we did when things didn’t go the way we wanted. We were down against Milwaukee 0-2, and we never panicked by any means. We stayed together. We started 0-1 at home against Orlando, and we stuck together. We did a great job of staying in the moment.”
Putting aside personal goals for the benefit of the team takes a championship mentality, and perhaps enough experience in chasing the individual stuff that you learn there’s more to team sport. For the majority of those who figure to be a part of the rotation on opening night, they understand that. It’s the new faces, though, who have some ways to go to get there.
Nurse and the rest of those who reached the mountain top last year understand what it’s like to play when the air gets ferociously thin, and the Raptors head coach especially wants Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to understand what it’s like to put forth the effort required to play at that level.
“Those guys have not understood, A, how hard we play, B, our schemes, that defence is a priority for them, etcetera,” Nurse said after Wednesday’s practice. “We've got some work to do with all that crew. I tell them there's a couple spots, come Tuesday night, there's a couple spots that are open if somebody wants them. I keep telling you, show me you're going to play defence, show me you're going to play hard, show me you understand our coverages, show me. And then, whatever you do at the other end, you're going to get opportunities just because of who you're on the floor with.
“You don't have to come down and occupy 95 per cent of your mind with how you're going to break down [your opponent] and get your next shot. It's not going to get you on the floor right now. We've got some work to do. We've got to find who's going to blend in quickly, defensively, with this crew.”
It’s certainly not a ringing endorsement of two players coming in with low expectations, but from the view of their own lens, the sacrifice that Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are being asked to make isn’t quite as straightforward as the veterans a year ago. Those veterans had accomplished plenty individually, while these two are still trying to carve out a niche for themselves in terms of what they bring to the table for any NBA team that’s watching.
Johnson gave a knowing smile on Media Day when asked about which aspect of his game the Raptors would like him to most develop, and it’s not rocket science to understand Hollis-Jefferson faces the same challenge. That their headspace seems a little bit more occupied with showing that they can add something offensively isn’t too much of a surprise. Neither has played for a franchise that knows NBA championship-level basketball, either. That’s going to take some time.
“I think that extra two months is huge,” Nurse said in reference to what playing in May and June did for the team. “It's because of such a high level you have to concentrate at, play at, film work, walk-throughs. All that stuff is such a high level, it's really a benefit to be able to play those two months.”
The speed with which a new lineup of Lowry-OG Anunoby-Pascal Siakam-Ibaka-Gasol is grasping where they need to be and how they can better each other highlights the value of those two months. Nurse described a sideline out-of-bounds play run four different times with four players swapping positions. Gasol was communicating with Ibaka about when they should switch and one plays the 4 (power forward) and the other the 5 (center). There was Anunoby and Siakam sharing their thoughts on when one of them is better-suited to be the inbounder. This is the level of attention to detail you learn on a championship run, the subtle changes that can render scouting reports useless.
Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson don’t have the benefit of those two months, but they’d do well to take from those that do. Gasol emphasized the importance of staying in the moment last year, and later spoke of focusing on what he can control and ignoring the things he can’t with regard to his own contract situation. If Nurse has implored them to play with more focus on the defensive end and that that’s their point of entry into playing time, that’s what they’ve got to find a way to do. Chemistry comes with time, but they can’t build that magical C-word if they’re not out on the floor.
They weren’t the only two new faces who took some criticism, either, as Nurse suggested that Terence Davis II could stand to improve his rebounding by... using his ass — among other things — like Lowry or VanVleet.
“I grabbled Pat Matumbo and said ‘Pat, go grab a bunch of clips of Fred and Kyle blocking out these monsters, so why can’t Terrence? He has the strength and size and he’s got to go down and hit these people,” Nurse said.
“He has to learn how these guys use their leverage, their legs and their ass to drive those guys out of there. But mostly it’s just determination... These guys got to learn to play a little harder. They think they are playing hard but they got learn to play a little harder. And that’s another thing we learned from those two months in the playoffs. How hard you have to play.”
Toronto lost a significant amount of talent with the departures of Leonard and Green, but what it got to keep were the championship habits that can make a difference when the margins are razor-thin. And with just under a week remaining before opening night, the urgency with which Nurse delivered his message spoke volumes about the margin for error the Raptors have if they hope to continue competing at a high level this season.