Sure Nurse misses Kawhi but he's excited about who will step up for Raptors

Rockets’ Russell Westbrook passes the ball against the Raptors’ Serge Ibaka. Ibaka said that having camp in Japan was really good for the team.  Getty Images

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TOKYO — Maybe it was such an obvious question that it just slipped through the cracks. Nobody asked Nick Nurse about whether he missed Kawhi Leonard during the first couple of weeks of camp until a questioner from New Zealand did so after one of the games in Japan this week.

Nurse smiled, thought for a second and then answered.

“Obviously he’s one of the world’s great players. I think any team would miss him,” Nurse said. But Toronto’s head coach didn’t dwell on what the team lost when Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. No, he’s looking at the positives and how the Raptors adapt.

“We played so many games without him a year ago that we’re kind of used to just going out and playing anyway. (Leonard’s) a big body defender and when he really locks in he can impact the game on defence, but I think (Pascal Siakam) and (OG Anunoby) and Norman Powell fill that role a little bit,” Nurse said. “And there’s also probably 20 shots a game we need to spread around a little bit (to replace Leonard’s shot attempts). Again (Fred) VanVleet’s role is expanding, Siakam’s role is expanding, Powell’s role is expanding, (Kyle) Lowry and (Marc) Gasol were fairly low usage guys last year because that was last year’s team, but they’re certainly capable of being higher usage and I imagine that will be the case.”

The Raptors lost the team’s one-man wrecking crew, but have enough experience playing without Leonard to remain confident and even excited about the opportunities his departure will provide for so many players on the roster.

SERGE IS READY

One of those players could be Serge Ibaka, who has had an superb camp and two good exhibition performances.

Ibaka was asked about how he has changed since his early days in Oklahoma City.

“Of course now I am a better player. I just get better with experience,” Ibaka said.
“Last year we just won a championship. To see it to feel it to understand to sacrifice and know basketball is a team sport. A couple of years ago maybe it could be hard for me to see that, but now, 11 years in the league now and have more experience and I’m a championship player.”

Ibaka has hinted at having to swallow his pride last year to embrace a bench role after starting for nearly his entire career. He believes the experience helped him grow as a professional.

STAGGERING TIME

Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said he will try to stagger superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook so that at least one of them is on the floor at all times. D’Antoni said he wants two of Westbrook Harden and Eric Gordon to always be on the court.

MIXING AND MATCHING

Nurse threw out some interesting looks in Game 2. The most unconventional one perhaps featured rookie Terence Davis, Patrick McCaw, Anunoby, Gasol and Malcolm Miller.

He also had Chris Boucher at power forward for a bit alongside newcomer Dewan Hernandez.

SAYONARA JAPAN

Everyone associated with the Raptors had nothing but good things to say about the trip to Japan. Yes, it was far, but all seemed thrilled to have gone and experienced Tokyo.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Powell. “The atmosphere was great, the fans were amazing, we really enjoyed our time out there.”

Ibaka felt it could help in terms of team bonding as well.

“I think this is going to help us big-time because we have a lot of new guys on the team. It’s a long trip too, it’s going to help us mentally to be tough to get in shape for the season,” Ibaka said.

For this corner it was one hell of an assignment. If you ever have a chance to visit Japan, don’t think twice. Do it.

Domo arigato gozaimasu Japan!

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