Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic says he misses Cup competition from his days roaming benches in Europe.
He will get a taste of something similar when Toronto plays host to the Boston Celtics on Friday in its opener for the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament. The Atlantic Division foes met last Saturday, with the Celtics putting a 23-point drubbing on the Raptors.
“We’re very motivated going into this game,” Rajakovic told reporters at practice Thursday. “In-Season Tournament is something that everybody’s looking forward to play. I’m excited to see the court.
“I miss Cup competition from Europe. I think this brings extra excitement to the league. We had a talk today with our guys just understanding that every possession matters every point matters.
“Obviously coming after a tough loss in Boston, we are very motivated to have another crack at that team and try to get our best basketball tomorrow night.”
The tournament is an idea the NBA had discussed for some years but introduced for the 2023-24 season.
Each conference is split up into three groups of five teams, with each squad playing four games within their group – two at home and two on the road – for an opportunity to move on to the knockout rounds.
Group play began Nov. 3 and ends Nov. 28. Brooklyn, Chicago and Orlando are the other teams in East Group C alongside Toronto and Boston.
Eight teams across the league, consisting of the six group leaders and two wild-card teams, will advance for a shot at the NBA Cup.
The quarter-finals will take place Dec. 4-5 in NBA team markets and the semi-finals on Dec. 7 and the championship on Dec. 9, will be played at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Every game except the championship also counts in the regular-season standings.
A tournament MVP award and all-tournament team will also be named, in addition to a prize pool based on how teams do, including US$500,000 going to each player on the winning team.
So far – with group games being played on tournament nights – group play has seen its share of high-intensity action and scuffles. Three players were ejected and one suspended in a game between Golden State and Minnesota on Tuesday.
It’s something Rajakovic is enjoying.
“I love it. I love intensity. I love pressure. I love games that are competitive,” he said. “I think that fans are enjoying that. You know, every game matters is a really good motto and I’m looking forward to it.”
Toronto is coming off a rough 128-112 loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday. The Bucks led by as many as 33 points being without superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Asked if he’s excited for the tournament, Toronto forward Pascal Siakam expressed more of a concern with rebounding from Wednesday’s defeat.
“I think I’m pumped to win a game right after losing a game. We want to bounce back,” he said. “We didn’t play well last night. I’m excited about that, having an opportunity to play a game and having an opportunity to win after a loss.”
For Siakam, every game carries significance.
“I don’t think that moves the needle, but I think it’s just playing basketball,” he said of the winning prize money. “Every time I have an opportunity to play and compete, to me is always exciting.
“I don’t think the money makes me like, ‘Oh my God, I have to kill myself.’ I have to kill myself every night because I want to be great. It’s not like those games don’t count.
“All those games are important. To me, I don’t try to put extra pressure on that. We’ve got to win every game that we try to play anyways. So it’s like, why not try [the same] for those ones?”
However, Raptors guard Dennis Schröder did not echo a similar sentiment.
“If you know there’s $500K on the table for the winner do you have motivation? There you go,” he said.