The Toronto Raptors’ quest to go back-to-back begins Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers. Watch the action every moment on Sportsnet ONE, Citytv and SN NOW starting at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT. Full details of the Raptors Return-to-Play schedule release can be found here.
The Toronto Raptors are not like other NBA teams or former NBA champions.
It’s obvious in a big and small, obvious and nuanced way.
Obviously, the Raptors are the only team in the NBA to play a different pre-game anthem, “O Canada” in addition to “The Star Spangled Banner”.
On the floor, they are the only team with a black president of African descent and one of the few teams with women in leading roles in the front office, participating in practice as an assistant coach and working behind the scenes of analysis and elsewhere in the world. organization.
On the ground, they also do it differently.
Last season, they became the first team in NBA history to win a championship without having a lottery pick on their roster. This season, they’re going to try something almost as rare: an NBA title without a superstar to organize the furniture around.
Instead, they do it in an unconventional way, where every piece in the room counts against the next and the light falls just right, with every corner having a chance to shine.
The Los Angeles Lakers, whom the Raptors face on Saturday night in the first of eight league games – and what could easily be a preview of the NBA Finals – have three former No. 1 overall picks in their rotation with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard. James and Davis are two of the top five players in the league. They’re heading for the Hall of Fame and Howard probably is too.
The Raptors rotation has two second-round picks in Norman Powell and Marc Gasol and two undrafted free agents in Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis. Their leader is Kyle Lowry, a playmaker’s bowling ball. In a league where all the stars fly through the air with the greatest of ease, Lowry hasn’t dived for 11 seasons. His signature game is to get kicked in the ass and take matters into your own hands.
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But they feel pretty good about themselves and their chances even now that one of their Championship team starters – Danny Green – starts for the Lakers and the other, Kawhi Leonard, starts for the Los Angeles Clippers. .
They have gone through the first part of the regular season with a record of 46-18, the third best in the league and can boast of the second best defense in the league, even with more games lost to injury by their main players. than any team in the NBA.
They are healthy now and fearless. Teams won titles without MVP-type players in their prime, but not very often. The 2004 Detroit Pistons did and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks probably qualify. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs with their aging trio of greats might do the trick, if hardly.
The Raptors don’t see the problem.
“I see it differently,” says Marc Gasol, who won an NBA title as an underdog last year, then a world championship as an underdog and, naturally, doesn’t have much time to. the concept of underdogs or favorites. “I look at it as if all the teams that had a player in the top five didn’t get a championship. Right?
“What is most important to you? You just have to find a way to be the best team you can be because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good a player you have on your side. At the end of the day you have to win as a team and it takes a whole team to win a championship or even a playoff series.
“So let’s focus on that and what we can control and be the best team we can be. Just keep growing with every regular season game, every playoff game. Just keep improving and seeing where we are. Everyone has a lot of players and stuff, but at the end of the day for me I always believe the best team wins no matter who they have on their roster.
If the Raptors have any advantage, it’s because they know they can do it. While Leonard got the lion’s share of the credit for winning a title in Toronto last year, those who remain watch the fact that the Raptors have gone 63-23 in their last 86 games without him – a better percentage of that Leonard wins with the Clippers. this season – and I think Leonard didn’t do it alone.
Every other contender gathered at Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando thinks they can go in October with a championship, the Raptors know that because they did.
“After winning I think it helps,” says VanVleet. “You know there’s the big picture there, the pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow, and you can kind of see what’s to come. And until you do that, you don’t really know what exactly you’re after. I think that’s part of winning a championship and having that pedigree, do you know a bit about the answers to the test.
But while they’re here – “here” being in the antiseptic “bubble” the NBA has set up outside of Orlando – the Raptors have other things on their minds, as do most of the players put together. after leaving behind their family, friends and loved ones. amid generational social unrest, not to mention the pandemic.
But even here, there are differences, subtleties that set Raptors apart.
Nick Nurse is a 53-year-old white man from Carroll, Iowa, but on his coaching staff is Jamal Magloire, a pioneer of the Toronto hoop scene and a pillar of the Caribbean community from which so many Torontonians black people claim their roots.
So in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the protests that followed, Nurse listened.
Among the messages he heard – in part from Magloire – was that Toronto and Canada have their fair share of equality and race relations challenges. And so the Iowa coach who started his career in England could say with some degree of confidence on Friday that whatever the players do when the anthems are played on Saturday night, it will resonate in Toronto and Canada as well, because it is necessary.
“It creates a little different moment when you play the anthems of two countries,” said Nurse. ” [But] … It is not a question of country, it is not a question of borders, for me it is a question of continuing to shed light on the fact that we must do better in the field of police brutality, we must do better in the area of systemic racism.
“It’s not just Canada, America, it’s a lot of places, so we’re treating it like a long song tomorrow.
And the Raptors being the Raptors, it’s not just North America either. Gasol grew up in Spain and learned about race relations in the United States when one of the first places he visited when moving to Memphis as a teenager was the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the former Lorraine Motel, where the murdered Martin Luther King Jr. was located. For the past few seasons, Gasol has volunteered with an international aid organization to rescue refugees trying to get from Africa to Europe by sea and make connections.
The issues underlying the Black Lives Matter movement run deeper than police brutality in the United States or Canada.
“We can see how we treat a lot of immigrants who come from Africa to Europe, the way we treat them – not ‘us’, but a lot of people do, unfortunately in Spain, in Italy or in other countries. other countries in Europe, ”Gasol said recently. “We see them as immigrants, not just human beings. So that tag that you put on (them) already tells you a lot about how you see them. All of these things have to change, and if it doesn’t come from the top and the government, it has to come from the people.
Serge Ibaka grew up in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, a region torn by civil war and conflict for decades, if not centuries. He left home to play basketball as a teenager first in France then Spain before coming to the United States and now Canada.
The Black Lives Matter movement may have gathered momentum in the largely unified response to Floyd’s death at the hands of a white cop in Minneapolis, but the shakes are rumbling far beyond.
For Ibaka, this is a continent that has flexed under the influence of colonialism – the ultimate expression of white privilege – and where the wounds run deep.
The players wear social justice messages on their jerseys and Ibaka reads “Respect us”.
“This is one thing I want people to understand: what is happening in the United States is what is happening everywhere, maybe in different ways,” Ibaka said. “In the United States you can see firsthand what’s going on, how the police are killing someone. But in the Congo, in Africa, in all the countries of Europe, it is also happening in different ways. The fight we are fighting here is bigger than the fight people think. Because if we can win this fight here, we’re going to change a lot of things in the world.
“They force us to kill each other, to kill each other, to rape our mothers, our daughters,” Ibaka said. “They are coming and they are receiving a lot of other resources from our countries. We live in poverty. We are nothing. At the same time, when we’re going to emigrate… they don’t want us to be there. They treat us like nothing. And it’s them, they come to Africa to take everything [from] we. They think we don’t deserve respect. They don’t respect us.
“That’s why my [jersey] message, I say “Respect us”.
Ibaka found a home in Toronto, an NBA city and an NBA franchise that deserved respect and more. He fits into an organization full of people who defy convention.
This is a team that doesn’t fully conform to any preconceived idea of what an NBA champion should be.
It’s a unique team perfectly suited for unique moments. They rightly believe this could be their time again.