Nurse: Champion Raptors haven’t reached ceiling

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Toronto Raptors have spent their entire season as the NBA’s defending champions saying that they feel confident, despite Kawhi Leonard leaving the franchise last summer, that they can win a second consecutive title this season.

So, after winning their opening game inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, do the Raptors think anyone is listening? Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he isn’t convinced — and isn’t too concerned either way.

“Yeah, maybe,” Nurse said after his Raptors won 107-92 in the final game played Saturday night. “I don’t think anybody’s going to pay much attention, they don’t ever seem to, but it’s OK.

“Seriously man, we love to play the games and we like to compete, we know we’re tough to beat, we really do, and I think there’s a ceiling we can get to yet.”

If there’s a higher ceiling for the Raptors after this one, it will be because Toronto shot just 41.7% overall from the field and committed 14 turnovers.

What it won’t come from is better play on the defensive end. The Raptors were suffocating on that end, holding the Lakers to a dismal 35.4% from the field overall, and to just 25% (10-for-40) from 3-point range.

James led the Lakers with 20 points, but had 5 assists, 4 turnovers and was minus-20 for the game. Forward Anthony Davis, meanwhile, had 14 points and shot just 2-for-7.

“I think I remember one timeout looking down, coming out sometime in the second quarter, and I looked down and I said, ‘Jeez, we’re shooting 30% and we’re winning,'” Nurse said. “And that’s kinda what good defense is supposed to do, get you through some of those moments.”

Getting through those moments is easier when a team’s point guard excels, as All-Star Kyle Lowry did Saturday night, finishing with a line of 33 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. He did it all with his usual reckless abandon for his own well-being, too, constantly throwing his body around at both ends of the court.

He also said he was moved by having the ability to protest by kneeling during the national anthems of both the United States and Canada before the game.

“We just want to go play,” said Lowry, one of the players who was most actively involved in talks with NBA commissioner Adam Silver to get the entire bubble project off the ground. “Some guys are down here for different things, our job is to be professional basketball players. But also we want to send [a] message, uplift the Black Americans that’s out there, Black people around the world and that’s our job, to do that.

“That’s what we’re doing, we’re trying to win games and keep our messages and momentum going.”

The Raptors entered the bubble in the same sort of space — as an afterthought in the NBA’s title race — that they have occupied all season. The Lakers, LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks have been hailed as the consensus title favorites, with the Raptors relegated to those in the category of “others receiving votes.” No small part of that calculus is because the Raptors don’t have that one superstar — be it James, Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo — that most title contenders typically do.

But after seeing a team full of championship experience, long, athletic defenders and multiple players capable of scoring 30-plus points in any given game, count one person among those thinking that there is at least one more team that deserves to be part of that championship conversation: James himself.

“That’s a great team,” James said afterward. “No ifs, ands or buts. Exceptionally well coached and championship DNA, you can never take that away from a ballclub if you win a championship. And even before that, they just got playoff-tested guys. Guys that played not only here in the NBA in big games, but also in FIBA games as well. Marc [Gasol] has been in big games throughout his whole life pretty much it seems like.

“So, that’s just a great team. The media may not talk about them much or give them much credit because Kawhi is gone, but players in the league definitely know what type of team they are.”

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