An­other beast in the East

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - Dave Feschuk

Like ev­ery work­ing coach of ev­ery team in the NBA East, David Fiz­dale of the New York Knicks fielded the ques­tion: What did he make of an­other all-NBA tal­ent land­ing in the con­fer­ence Satur­day af­ter­noon?

That’s when news broke that Jimmy But­ler’s re­al­ity-show cir­cus act of a trade de­mand had fi­nally come to a mer­ci­ful con­clu­sion. Most of two months since But­ler asked out of Min­nesota, he was shipped to Philadel­phia in a deal that trans­formed one of the East’s top hand­ful of teams into an un­de­ni­ably bet­ter one. Barely a month into its post-LeBron James era, the East looks more for­mi­da­ble than it’s been in years.

But Fiz­dale, in the lead-up to Sun­day’s Rap­tors-Knicks game at Sco­tia­bank Arena, said he didn’t pos­sess the band­width to process the im­pli­ca­tions of But­ler’s move.

Fiz­dale was too pre­oc­cu­pied, he said, with Toronto’s NBA team. He called the Rap­tors a “pow­er­house.” He deemed them “scary to watch on film.” And the view didn’t get bet­ter once the game be­gan. This was no Pi­casso. But Toron- to, sea­son-high 14 1⁄2- point favourites in Las Ve­gas, used their starters spar­ingly and still cov­ered the spread, 128-112. That’s their 12th win in 13 tries.

“They’ve got all the in­gre­di­ents,” Fiz­dale said of the Rap­tors. “They’re tough. They com­pete hard. They share the ball. They’re fast, ath­letic … It’s just a mat­ter — can they keep it to­gether, keep con­nect­ing? But I def­i­nitely re­spect them.”

This is the kind of gen­u­flect­ing that’s been com­ing from all over the U.S. in th­ese open­ing few weeks of the NBA sea­son. The Rap­tors are the NBA’s best team by record and pos­si­bly its deep­est by tal­ent pool. Ex­am­ple from Satur­day: Re­serve for­ward OG Anunoby had an im­pres­sively ef­fi­cient af­ter­noon, scor­ing 16 points on 7-for-10 shoot­ing from the field. On a lot of nights, that might have been a story. But ef­fi­ciency is a team spe­cialty. So Anunoby’s stat line was bet­tered by backup cen­tre Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas, who had 19 points on eight field-goal at­tempts. And the game’s PhD in econ­omy went to Pas­cal Si­akam, who had a ca­reer-high 23 points on seven shots from the field, six of which were suc­cess­ful, in­clud­ing 3-of-4 from three-point range. Si­akam, by the way, is the rare non-cen­tre in this

ro­ta­tion who sup­pos­edly can’t shoot. The Knicks left him open, and he sug­gested he can.

Still, it’s far too early to sug­gest the Rap­tors are peer­less favourites to make their first NBA Fi­nals ap­pear­ance in fran­chise his­tory. The Milwaukee Bucks came into Satur­day’s games boast­ing an of­fence rated se­cond in the league be­hind only the twotime de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons in Golden State. Milwaukee also had the top-rated de­fence. The Celtics have lost three of their past four games and clearly need to sort out some ball­shar­ing is­sues with the re­turn from in­jury of Kyrie Irv­ing and Gor­don Hay­ward. But com­ing into Satur­day, Bos­ton still ranked fourth in the league in de­fen­sive rat­ing.

And in Philadel­phia, which shipped Robert Cov­ing­ton, Dario Saric, Jer­ryd Bay­less and a 2022 se­cond-round pick to Min­nesota for But­ler and Justin Pat­ton, op­ti­mism abounds. Adding But­ler, a four-time all-star, to a team that won 52 games a sea­son ago fig­ures to make them a fac­tor, even if there’ll be chal­lenges in­te­grat­ing an­other al­pha male into a ro­ta­tion that al­ready in­cludes Joel Em­biid and Ben Sim­mons.

“It cer­tainly brings a re­ally good player into our gym a few more times, so we look for­ward to that,” said Nurse, speak­ing be­fore the game of the But­ler trade. “I mean, lis­ten. I think the East is a lot bet­ter than maybe peo­ple give it credit for.”

On Satur­day Fiz­dale of­fered com­pelling out­sider’s tes­ti­mony on Toronto’s bona fides, and specif­i­cally those of Kawhi Leonard. In a pre­vi­ous run as an as­sis­tant coach with the Mi­ami Heat, Fiz­dale watched Leonard in­ter­rupt the Heat’s bid for a third straight cham­pi­onship in 2014 with a per­for­mance that earned Leonard his only cham­pi­onship ring and an NBA Fi­nals MVP. And it was only back in 2017, on Leonard’s most re­cent run through the NBA post-sea­son, that Fiz­dale, then head coach in Mem­phis, con­tin­ued to mar­vel at Leonard’s unique dom­i­nance.

“I’m gonna check the rule book and find out if ro­bots are al­lowed to play in the NBA. I think (Leonard) bleeds an­tifreeze,” Fiz­dale fa­mously said at the time.

Speak­ing Satur­day, Fiz­dale smiled at the me­mory.

“I still have bad dreams from the play­offs in Mem­phis where there was noth­ing I could do against the guy,” Fiz­dale said.

On Satur­day, Leonard’s sec- ond start in a row af­ter tak­ing a cou­ple of games off with a jammed foot, he wasn’t his usual cy­borg self. He looked hu­man. This was his first game as a Rap­tor wherein he didn’t shoot at least 40 per cent from the field, go­ing a blasé 2-for-7 for 12 points. This was his first game as a Rap­tor with­out a three-pointer, go­ing 0-for-2 from deep. And none of it mat­tered. The Knicks, still with­out the ser­vices of Kristaps Porzingis (re­cov­er­ing from a torn ACL), are a clear-the-bench-early kind of op­po­nent. Leonard played just 23 min­utes. Ten Rap­tors played at least 18 min­utes.

And even af­ter an off-night, Leonard was still shoot­ing 48 per cent from the field, 42 per cent from three-point range and 88 per cent from the line while av­er­ag­ing 24 points a game.

“Man, he’s just got­ten bet­ter ev­ery year. And he just keeps adding and adding,” Fiz­dale said of Leonard. “You know, he’s a class-act kid that re­ally com­petes the right way. And he’s a scary, scary dude.”

In other words, the East got a lit­tle bit bet­ter Satur­day. The Rap­tors got a lot bet­ter this past sum­mer, and they’ve got five months to con­tinue their new-look metamorphosis.

“Last year they were a 60-win team, ba­si­cally, knock­ing on the door. You add cham­pi­ons (like Leonard and former Spur Danny Green), MVP can­di­dates to this team, more ver­sa­til­ity to this team. You’ve got to re­ally count them in on hav­ing a shot to get there,” Fiz­dale said. “Bar­ring any in­jury or any­thing like that, this team is go­ing to be in the mix. They are le­git­i­mate.”

RICK MADONIK TORONTO STAR

Toronto Rap­tors for­ward Kawhi Leonard, cen­tre, scored just 12 points on 2-for-7 shoot­ing on Satur­day, but Toronto put up 128 points due to its bal­anced strength.

RICK MADONIK TORONTO STAR

Toronto Rap­tors cen­tre Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas, right, had 19 points on only eight shots from the floor on Satur­day, and he wasn’t even the most ef­fi­cient Rap­tors scorer.

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