From the presence of digital fans and scorekeepers behind plexiglass, to the NBA’s reigning champs playing sloppy basketball, everything about the Toronto Raptors’ final exhibition game of the NBA restart appeared peculiar.
The Raptors looked disengaged on Tuesday as they played the last of their three scrimmages in the NBA’s Orlando bubble – a turnover-riddled 117-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Chalk it up to players still working themselves into game shape while simultaneously growing bored of exhibition games.
“We didn’t have a lot of very engaged play,” head coach Nick Nurse said afterward. “It’s so meaningless that you can wash it away pretty quick … we get to see come Saturday night what the feel is.”
The Raptors were porous defensively and turned the ball over 28 times. Pascal Siakam led the champs in the losing effort with 17 points – including four three-pointers – while Norman Powell chipped in 14 points.
Toronto won two of its three scrimmages in the bubble, and finally gets set for meaningful games – starting Saturday night against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Each of the 22 teams invited to Orlando will play eight times in the next two weeks to determine the 16 seeds for the NBA playoffs.
People have had a couple of weeks to get used to the idea of NBA basketball inside a tightly secured Orlando bubble – seeing social-media posts of players in a world that includes its own daily testing for COVID-19, along with ping-pong tables, fishing ponds and barber shops. But it still seemed surreal to watch a Raptors game broadcast live from Disney World on a weekday July afternoon.
Instead of a crowd of some 20,000 hollering fans at a typical NBA game, the arena was empty, its walls instead featuring 17-foot video boards flashing prerecorded images of cheering supporters. The scorekeepers worked courtside, but behind a hockey-style plexiglass barrier, while players and coaches sat in physically-distanced assigned seats. Only a small group of media is inside the bubble. Not even beloved Raptors broadcasters Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong are there – they are calling games off TV in Toronto.
While the atmosphere was different, and the Raptors played lacklustre ball, there were still some familiar moments. Nurse played many of his starters more than 20 minutes, OG Anunoby had a trio of blocks and Powell was driving to the hoop. Marc Gasol was protecting the rim, there were some zippy assists and, even in a scrimmage, Kyle Lowry was putting his body on the line to draw charges.
Gasol, who had played just 10 minutes of exhibition basketball since the NBA reboot at Disney prior to Tuesday, played 19:55 in this final tune-up, tallying five points, nine boards and a pair of blocked shots.
Fred VanVleet was back in action after he left Sunday’s scrimmage after a knee-on-knee collision with Portland’s Anfernee Simons. The Toronto point guard put up 13 points and three assists Tuesday.
The Raps have now been living the bubble life in Florida for nearly a month. They arrived two weeks ahead of the other NBA teams and quarantined in Naples since many of them travelled from Canada.
They have a few quiet days before playing eight games in 14 days. The first week sees meetings with Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Boston and Memphis. Nurse said he always likes the way his Raptors refocus after a loss and expects a few strong days of practice.
For a second straight day, Nurse wore a special Black Lives Matter mask during his Zoom press conference with reporters. He recently presented the masks to everyone on his team. Created by Toronto artist Nadia Lloyd, the masks feature a large fist rising up amidst the city’s unique skyline. The artist has seen a spike in interest in her masks since the team began showing them off on Zoom, and Devlin shouted her out on Tuesday’s broadcast.
“Good, she deserves it,” Nurse said.