Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse was surprised to hear some of his players say they hadn’t wanted to come to the NBA bubble in the first place.
On the eve of the Raptors’ second-round opener against the Boston Celtics, and after an emotional few days in the Walt Disney World bubble, the coach said he’s had numerous heart-to-hearts with his players.
Nurse’s opinion is that they can do better work against social injustice with the world watching them play.
And that was a key reason the league decided to reconvene after the four-month layoff due to COVID-19.
“Playing these games certainly gives our guys a much better platform for social justice and any cause … that was kind of the conversations that I had individually and I expressed to the team,” the coach said Saturday.
“In all reality, we only really request their attention for a couple hours a day, and the rest of the day they can do whatever they want, and then they get a chance to earn a living and support their family on top of that and they have a platform to do that with. So, that’s one of the basis of a lot of the conversations.”
The shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by Wisconsin police last weekend ignited an NBA that had already made social and racial justice a major theme of the restart. Raptors Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell were among the first to mention a boycott, then the Milwaukee Bucks did just that, refusing to take the floor Wednesday against Orlando.
Their protest led to the league shutting down for three days, and then subsequent strikes in other sports.
The Raptors, including all-star guard Kyle Lowry who sprained his left ankle in Sunday’s Game 4 rout of Brooklyn, practised Saturday for the first time in three days.
Nurse said it felt like another restart.
“You’re just working on passing and catching the ball and dribbling a little bit and just kind of getting the cobwebs out and it took a while, to be honest with you, it took almost I’d say half, or three-fourths of a practice before it felt like we kind of were moving OK and were zeroed in on basketball a little bit,” Nurse said. “But all understandable stuff.”
Nurse said earlier this week that some of his players had wanted to leave the NBA bubble. Many players, not only Raptors, felt that leaving to protest was more important than playing.
But teams returned to the court after the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed on commitments, including a few centred around voting. Among them: all team owners who control their arena property will work with local officials to provide those arenas for voting in the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
That doesn’t apply to Toronto, obviously. But Nurse and the Raptors launched a campaign a few weeks ago to encourage the some-650,000 Americans living in Canada to register to vote.
“We know that only 30-some thousand of them, around five per cent, voted in the last election,” Nurse said. “That’s a ridiculous number, 30-some thousand out of 650,000 plus is mind-boggling. We’re trying to help with that.”
Asked if there a goal for how many voters they want to get registered, Nurse replied: “650,000.”
The Raptors and Celtics have been two of the hottest teams in the bubble, Boston handing the Raptors their only loss in the restart. Both swept their first-round opponent easily, with the Celtics beating Philadelphia in four games.
Both have balanced offences and boast among the league’s best defences.
While Lowry was listed as questionable for Sunday’s opener, Nurse said he looked “OK” practising on Saturday.
Putting aside the emotions of the past few historic days might prove to be the toughest task when the ball finally goes up again.
While no Toronto players spoke to the media on Saturday, VanVleet said earlier this week that the tone of this unprecedented post-season, which was already delayed four months due to COVID-19, had changed.
“I was pretty excited and then we all had to watch Jacob Blake get shot. … That kind of changes the tone of things,” VanVleet had said. “(The protests) aren’t supposed to not be in vain. It’s just starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions, nothing’s changing.”
Nurse said he’s learned a lot about his players both in the past few days, and even the past few weeks in Florida since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police in May. His death ignited protests across the U.S. and even globally.
“I continue to get personal stories from our players about incidents they have been through themselves with law enforcement officers which are personal and disheartening and disappointing,” Nurse said.
Teams are physically isolated from the outside world at the NBA’s campus at Disney World, and so there have been questions about whether they realize the impact their messages against social and racial injustice have had.
Nurse pointed out that the “bubble” isn’t vastly different from the virtual bubble players live in to maintain focus during any post-season run.
“You’ve got to create a little bit of that to focus. I’m not on social media listening to what is happening and things like that so I don’t know if you’re unaware,” he said. “But I don’t think you are totally aware of the impact it is having all over the place.
“I thought it was awesome the other sports joined in. I really do. I think it was a great show of class and support, especially MLB and WNBA and the NHL. That was great.
“I think it’s one of those things that is going to take some time to sink in and looking back on it, (it’s difficult) to see what magnitude when you are kind of in the middle on the ground of it.”
On the court, meanwhile, the Celtics are also battling injuries. Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle in the first round and is back in Boston rehabbing.
Both teams spread their scoring around. Toronto is the first team with five players averaging 15 points per game since the 1973-74 Buffalo Braves. Boston has three players averaging more than 20 points per game in Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown.
The Raptors bench has been outstanding, averaging a league-best 56.5 points per game. The reserves scored an NBA-record 100 points in their Game 4 rout of Brooklyn.
Game 2 is scheduled for Tuesday.