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Pace of competitive Raptors practices picks up as trash talk fills empty gym

Trash talk has become the soundtrack of Toronto Raptors practices at Walt Disney World.

Four months after the NBA was forced to shut down due to COVID-19, the Raptors are making up for lost time with their fierce fight at practice.

“Practices have been super, super competitive,” said Patrick McCaw. “A lot of trash talk, a lot of guys going at it, just pushing each other. We’ve been away from each other for two or three months, so guys are excited to see each other but also excited to play.

“So that energy [at] practice is super intense, and it’s fun, because you’re competing against the guys that you’re going to war with. It’s been a couple weeks of great fun.”

Coach Nick Nurse wasn’t quite sure what to expected in this unprecedented situation. He’s been pleased with his players’ feistiness.

“There’s a lot of juice in there, a lot of juice in the building, and high spirits,” Nurse said after Thursday’s practice at Disney, where courts have been laid down in a massive convention hall.

“It’s all good-natured stuff — it’s competitive-natured stuff, but it’s all been fine.”

Younger players pushing vets

Norm Powell, the unofficial leader of the second unit, said the younger players have been pushing the veterans hard.

“Man, we’re competing,” Powell said. “I was actually really happy and excited the way the younger guys were getting Fred [VanVleet] and Kyle [Lowry] and Pascal [Siakam] worked up, taking their intensity level even higher. The games have been really good when we’re getting after it in our in-team scrimmages and things like that.”

The Raptors were second in the Eastern Conference when the league shuttered on March 11, and that was despite having a revolving door of a roster due to numerous injuries to key players. The Raptors were fifth in the league in games lost to injury.

Nurse now has the luxury of a full roster to choose from.

Powell, who was playing the most consistent basketball of his NBA career before the hiatus, is being more vocal at practice. He’s taken aside players such as Chris Boucher, rookie Terence Davis, McCaw and Stanley Johnson to remind them to make Nurse’s job more difficult, to constantly battle for more a bigger role.

“I’m telling them, ‘We’ve got to go at these guys [the starters] because we want their spot. They are in the position we want to be in. So we’re not going to take it easy on them in these drills, we’re not going to let them feel like they can do whatever they want and take it easy and go through the motions. We’re going to go after them, we’re going to compete, and we’re going to show them that we’re here and we want more,”‘ Powell said.

Depth to be relied upon

Nurse said he could go deep into his bench for the three scrimmages and eight-game seeding round before tightening it up for the playoffs.

“I just think that you’re going to play eight, nine in the playoffs. Everybody sort of gets to that point, every possession is so critical,” he said.

“One thing that’s for sure, each series always seems to be so different. Sometimes there’s just some guy that doesn’t fit and then maybe there’s a series where a Chris Boucher or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or somebody who’s in the rotation but towards the back of it maybe they get slotted in for a matchup or something.

“So I think it’s always good to have some versatility, maybe 12 guys you can use because you can never know who suits each series.”

Nurse received a virtual thumbs up from reporters in Thursday’s Zoom video call for his sweater. It said “Box + One,” a nod to the box-and-one defence, most often seen in collegiate games, that he implemented against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals.

The Raptors could be at Disney World for the next three months if they go deep into the playoffs. The team has tried to make them feel at home, and most recently decorated their floor of the hotel. There’s large “We The North” banners on players’ doors, and a huge photo of the Toronto skyline decorates one wall of the hallway.

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