Undefeated at home, Raptors about to be tested in first big road trip
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and teammate Pascal Siakam (43) celebrate their team's win following second half NBA basketball action against the Dallas Mavericks, in Toronto on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, November 1, 2018 4:41PM EDT
TORONTO -- The Toronto Raptors' hot start to the NBA season has made them the talk of the Eastern Conference. But they need to find a rhythm on the road if they expect to go deep into the post-season.
The Raptors departed Thursday for their first extended trip of the season, and newcomers Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green -- both NBA champions with San Antonio -- talked about the importance of developing a road identity.
"This is where you build your chemistry for the playoffs," Leonard said.
"It will be nice to get a good rhythm in those cities," Green added. "We play good at home but we've also got to play good on the road as well. We haven't shot well on the road, haven't played well. So we want to carry it over from home."
The 7-1 Raptors, who are undefeated at home and whose lone loss came in Milwaukee, open their road trip Friday in Phoenix before visiting L.A. to face the Lakers on Sunday, and Utah on Monday. They wrap up Wednesday in Sacramento.
Leonard has sat two games as part of back-to-back series, for precautionary reasons, including the loss to the Bucks. But the star wing, who played just nine games last season because of a quadriceps injury, hopes to play in his hometown on Sunday.
"We'll see what happens and what they have on the menu but I'm pretty sure I'll be playing," Leonard said, the day after the team's Halloween party -- he went as a Navy Seal.
Leonard said the plan is not to push his body too hard early in the season, but it's tough to sit out and watch.
"You want to play, but I've been through the league long enough to know where the important games are, and that's April, May and June," he said.
Leonard has been excellent at both ends of the floor, but it's his defence that had Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green talking earlier this week. Green is gunning for the NBA's defensive player of the year award, which Leonard won twice with San Antonio.
When asked about who else in the league is in the same class as himself, Green mentioned Leonard.
"I got mad respect for him, but I think I'm the best. If you want my honest opinion, there's no one in the category with me but Kawhi," Green said.
Leonard, who won the award in 2015 and '16, said he's aiming to get back to that utterly dominant defensive player he was. And if takes one to know one, Leonard also had kind words for his Warriors counterpart.
"It's a long season but I appreciate the support," Leonard said. "(Green) does a tremendous effort of going out every night and trying to defend one of the best players on the court. He puts up that effort."
Leonard had four steals in Tuesday's 129-112 win over Philadelphia, one of the team's best defensive efforts so far this season.
"I think we've had some really scary stretches (of solid defensive play) and I think it started in Montreal first," Nurse said, referring to their pre-season win over Brooklyn. "In that third quarter where we were just flying around. It looked like there was just nowhere to go for anybody and we were coming away with the ball in something like 11 straight possessions or something like that. And we had a few of those runs the other night as well."
The Raptors' strong start has come despite missing OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright for several games.
Anunoby practised Thursday after missing Tuesday's game for personal reasons. Nurse said VanVleet, who's been out with a sprained big toe, is also expected to make the trip.
"I think we've been fairly unhealthy here, right? Like, Fred and OG and Delon (Wright) have hardly played for us this whole time," Nurse said. "They've been in and out and in and out, but they haven't practised or played very much at all. Those are three really good players, and Fred and Delon kind of go together a little bit, so I think it'll help us a lot.
"I think our second unit has been a little disjointed. Some of that's my fault, changing it all the time and searching and all that kind of stuff. I think it'll help all of those guys to be back."
The Raptors return home to host the New York Knicks on Nov. 10.