Beyond their status as the league’s defending champions, the Toronto Raptors are the NBA’s canaries in the coal mine, first-in to their own private “pre-bubble bubble” as part of the post-coronavirus-shutdown restart.
In advance of the other 21 teams descending on central Florida, and as the only NBA team faced with international travel and heightened medical restrictions crossing into the United States, the Raptors began their trial-balloon bubble two weeks ago in Fort Myers, Fla.
They’ll head to the Walt Disney World complex outside Orlando this week -- with early experience at what the other teams will face on and off the court.
The canaries are doing fine, thanks for asking.
“Let’s not get overconfident, but let’s say slightly more confident,” was the way Raptors coach Nick Nurse described his comfort level Tuesday afternoon in a media conference call. “I would say I feel much more safe than maybe I thought I was going to.
“Each day of testing that goes by, you’ve got a bit of anxiety to get that email that night from the doc and see what the results are. That’s been good.”
“To me,” Nurse added, “it feels like we’re in a safe environment. We’re going a long ways out of your way to make it extra safe. Which we should.”
Toronto guard Fred VanVleet said last week the restart idea sounded good in theory, not so much as he got ready to travel to Florida. All-Star forward Pascal Siakam said Friday that seeing an increase in positive test results in that state “kind of scared” him, but he too had faith that the league protocols would hold.
The NBA’s bold experiment to resume a season that was halted March 11 will depend on its ability to avoid or minimize the coronavirus spread inside the self-contained campus it has designed. Once all participants and support staff of the 22 clubs are inside, strict protocols will be in place for a reduced schedule of “seeding games,” possibly followed by a play-in round, then by a traditional 16-team playoff bracket.
Initial testing of players who participated in workouts at their team’s specific facilities revealed 25 positive results out of 351 administered tests (7.1 percent). Additionally, 10 of 884 team staff employees tested positive for the virus that can lead to COVID-19.
Nurse, however, said the member of Toronto’s traveling party are healthy. In fact, for an ad-hoc training camp staged before the big ramp-up in Orlando -- games begin on July 30 -- the Raptors seem to be faring well.
“We’ve been solid,” Nurse said. “I really like the individual work that a lot of our young guys have gotten. It’s been way more consistent. When you’re not flying and playing and games interrupting, and there’s late flights where you need a day off the next day, it’s just been a consistent block of work. Both in the weight room and on the court. Obviously nutrition.”
Presumably none of the Raptors are sneaking out of the luxury resort hotel on Florida’s Gulf Coast for a taco run. Their coach lauded the players’ approach so far.
“They’ve had great attitudes,” Nurse said. “I haven’t sensed hardly any boredom or waning or ‘Not another day of 1-on-0 work.’ I’ve sensed great energy, great professionalism. The guys have been in the gym. Even though it’s different, it’s still pretty good. We’ve got our music playing, and when you look across the floor, guys are working, sweating and getting better.”
And away from the gym? “In the hotel, we’re confined,” the coach said. “We’re away from everything. It’s just clean all over the place. Everybody’s wearing masks. When we go to the gym, there’s cleaning, and we come back. It feels safe.”
Like the other 21 teams, the Raptors are traveling this week to their Disney World hotels and the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. All teams will adhere to strict guidelines and frequent swabs.
“I’d imagine, we’ll go in there, and the early days and early stages of the Disney thing are critical, getting a whole bunch of testing done,” Nurse said. “I think it will all be done at a really high level. And remain fairly safe.”
The Raptors have had a hotel to themselves in Fort Myers, while holding workouts at Florida Gulf Coast University. The practice time has been regimented, mostly individual work on the court, with some strength training and conditioning.
That’s the grind of NBA prep work. Soon, assuming the tests stay negative, teams will be permitted to scrimmage.
Said Nurse: “I would assume that once they give us a chance to play and have multiple people on the floor, guys are going to want to get up and down. I could see very short … drill work and getting right to the 5-on-5 play. I’m sensing they really want to play basketball.”
Getting guys into proverbial “basketball shape” will mean pushing them after a layoff of four months, without pushing too hard. Toronto will rely on Alex McKechnie, its director of sports science, and his staff to strike a balance.
“You know it’s a concern,” Nurse said. “Just think back to how hard we were playing and how fast Golden State was moving in those Finals. We’re a long way away from that, but we need to get back to that at some point.”
At 46-18 when the season paused, the Raptors will start the eight seeding games in second place, 6.5 games behind Milwaukee and three ahead of Boston. Even with 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard gone to the Clippers this season, they are a top contender to reach the championship round again and even defend their title.
If they stick in the bubble that long -- a Game 7 of the Finals would be Oct. 13 -- they’ll be gone from home nearly four months. No family or friends can join them at Disney until after the playoffs’ first round. That means serious separation for couples and, especially, young families.
“It’s another little part of the puzzle, right? And it’s a big one,” said Nurse, who has three young boys with wife Roberta.
“For me, I would say it starts with a conversation. When you’re bumping into Fred or Kyle [Lowry] and you’re asking ‘em ‘How are the wife and kids? What are they doing? When was the last time you talked to ‘em?’ There’s a lot more of that going on than I would say normally would happen.”
That means opening up photos from home on the cellphone to show each other. It also means treading lightly, Nurse said, if a player happens to get a FaceTime call from his child at an inconvenient moment, like a film session or meeting.
“Sometimes hooking up with schedules and kids when those FaceTime calls come, you’ve got to take ’em and drop everything you’re doing,” Nurse said.
Nurse’s youngest son was born last spring during the Finals against Golden State. His others are old enough to really miss their father. There is no great way to handle the distance, as he found out when leaving for Fort Myers.
“When I left, [Leo] being a 3-year-old kid, he … didn’t quite understand how long I’m gonna be gone,” Nurse said. “I said ‘I’m gonna go coach some games,’ he said, ‘Well, I’m gonna wait right here for you.’
“I hope he’s moved from that spot because it’s gonna be a while.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.