Many NBA coaches have called them an opportunity to warm up before the playoffs, to ease their star players back into professional ball. They won’t count towards end-of-season awards. For most teams, save those in the eight seed and below, they won’t carry a lot of weight in the standings.
If that’s how the upcoming seeding games are being framed, what should we think of the season before the season before the “season”?
Yes, I’m referring to the scrimmage games, which begin for the Raptors in just two days — 137 days after their last NBA game — as they take on the Houston Rockets. It’s the first of three warmups that also include a matchup with the Blazers on Sunday and the Suns on Tuesday.
These opportunities to watch NBA basketball would make anyone salivate, me included — but should also be met with proper expectations. If seeding games are going to include a full rotation of a team’s roster, then these scrimmages will probably look something like a real NBA preseason — lots of bench minutes, short bursts for starters, and a penchant for modesty in the offences and defences run by the coaching staff.
What will it look like for the Raptors, specifically? Even if there’s undoubtedly some sloppy play to come, plenty of intrigue surrounds the team. Toronto has early seeding games against the Lakers (Aug. 1), Heat (Aug. 3), and Celtics (Aug. 7) — the latter of which they’re trying to hold off to secure the second seed. There are precious few opportunities to get back into a rhythm.
Here are three things to keep your eye over the next six days as the Raptors attempt to do just that.
Depth on display
On Tuesday, the NBA announced the full rosters for all 22 participating teams in the bubble. Toronto was one of 11 squads to utilize all 17 spots allowed, which means they’re coming into this weekend with plenty of bodies to earn minutes.
The Raptors’ roster for the NBA Restart has been revealed. pic.twitter.com/VZ4wd6dqLh— TSN (@TSN_Sports) July 21, 2020
That has to square, though, with Nick Nurse’s vocalized desire to get his ideal playoff rotation of eight players time to play together — a luxury they haven’t had all season due to various injuries.
Speculate all you want, but that thinning of the rotation isn’t likely to happen in the scrimmage games. These games should more be looked at as a renewed opportunity for various bench wings to earn that eighth spot in the “Top 8”.
From what we’ve seen, Patrick McCaw has the inside track (remember when our biggest problem was McCaw’s minutes?) If fair is fair, though, Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should both be given a fair look. The Raptors’ full bench lineup was a world of chaos late in the winter months and even with a full bill of health, Nurse should examine how to effectively extend his rotation to ten if needed in the playoffs.
State of the union
I touched on this in my four questions article last week, but the scrimmage games should immediately give us some idea as to who’s feeling ready and who’s feeling rusty in the bubble.
The Raptors had 117 days between winning the championship last summer and starting their preseason — a shorter layoff than they’re facing now. Again, that should affect our expectations for how the team looks — this is a squad that was playing some of their most energized basketball after the new year. It won’t be a situation where they pick up where they left off.
The one player everyone will focus on, at least when it comes to the question of rust vs. ready, is Pascal Siakam. While I wouldn’t expect him to play beyond 25-30 minutes in this weekend’s scrimmage games, we’ll get plenty of tape to analyze to see how the layoff affected his progress as a number one option.
Siakam’s stats have been steady all season, but the fourth-year forward did experience a slight downtick in usage in January and February. After peaks of 29.6% in December, a hot stretch from Kyle Lowry and an injury resulted in a slower work back (26.0% in February, 26.9% in March).
There are still areas of improvement, too, if the Raptors want to get past some of the best teams in a playoff setting. Siakam will need to improve as a passer and his one-on-one efficiency will need to be there when games slow down.
The scrimmages won’t answer all these questions, but they will give fans some first impressions.
How creative does Nick Nurse want to get?
With 12 to 17 players getting minutes over the next three games, Nick Nurse probably won’t be opening his whole bag of tricks on his Western Conference opponents. Again, though, first impressions could be interesting as we look at where the Raptors are in their team defence progressions.
Pundits are picking the Raptors as a sleeper favourite for the championship — or at least a Bucks beater — on the strength of their defence. After over three months off, how able will they be in executing those strengths?
Toronto enters the bubble as the league’s second ranked defence (104.9), leading the bubble in steals (8.8) and opponents’ three point percentage (33.7%). That, while allowing opponents to shoot the second-most threes in the league, shows a team executing a new style of basketball at a high level. I’ll be curious to see where the pick things up in the bubble, especially against a Rockets team that shorts the most threes (44.3 per game) in the NBA.
With basketball back, those little points of analysis — both individually and a team level — are something sorely missed during these quarantine times. Though the scrimmage games won’t be basketball at the highest level, they’ll let us dip our toes back in. For now, that’s more than good enough.