BUENA VISTA LAKE, Fla. – The Toronto Raptors have spent the entire season as defending champions of the NBA claiming to feel confident, despite Kawhi Leonard having left the franchise last summer, to be able to win a second consecutive title this season.
So after winning their opening game inside the NBA bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, do the Raptors think anyone is listening? The Toronto coach, Nick Nurse, has said that he is not convinced and that he is not too worried either way.
“Seriously, we love playing and we like to compete, we know that we are hard to beat, we really do, and I think there is still a limit to be reached.”
If there is a higher limit for Raptors after this, it will be because Toronto only shot 41.7% of the field and committed 14 turnovers.
Where it doesn’t come from is better to play on the defensive end. The Raptors were suffocating to this end, keeping the Lakers a dismal 35.4% from the field in general, and only 25% (10 by 40) by 3 points.
James led the Lakers with 20 points, but had 5 assists, 4 turnovers and was minus-20 for the game. Forward Anthony Davis, meanwhile, scored 14 points and only shot 2 out of 7.
“I think I remember a timeout looking down, going out a few times in the second quarter, and I looked down and said,” Hell, we’re shooting 30% and we’re winning, “said Nurse.” And that’s kind of what that should make a good defense, get you through some of those moments. “
Overcoming those moments is easier when a team’s point guard excels, as All-Star Kyle Lowry did on Saturday night, ending with a line of 33 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. He did everything with his usual reckless abandon also for his own well-being, constantly throwing his body around the two ends of the field.
He also said he was moved by having the ability to protest by kneeling during the national anthems of the United States and Canada before the game.
“We just want to go play,” said Lowry, one of the players who has been most actively involved in talks with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to get the whole bubble off the ground. “Some guys are down here for different things, our job is to become professional basketball players. But we also want to send them [a] message, uplift the black Americans out there, black people all over the world and that’s our job, to do it.
“This is what we are doing, we are trying to win games and keep our messages and momentum going.”
The Raptors entered the bubble in the same type of space – as an afterthought in the NBA title race – which they occupied throughout the season. The Lakers, LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks were hailed as the consensus favorites, with the Raptors relegated to the “others who received votes” category. A small part of that calculation is because the Raptors don’t have that superstar – be it James, Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo – that most title contenders generally have.
But after seeing a team full of experience in the league, long athletic defenders and multiple players capable of scoring more than 30 points in a given game, there is one person among those who think that there is at least another team that deserves to make part of that championship conversation: James himself.
“It’s a great team,” said James later. “No ifs and buts. Exceptionally well trained and championship DNA, you can never take it away from a club if you win a championship. And even before, they just got boys tested by the playoffs. Boys who played not only here in the NBA in big games, but also in FIBA games [Gasol] he has been in the big games throughout his life practically it seems.
“So this is just a great team. The media may not talk about it much or give them a lot of credit because Kawhi is gone, but the league players surely know what kind of team they are.”