For Raptors, as talent grows, hard, physical play will be equalizer

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In a conference that boasts the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant not to mention Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler and Trae Young, the Raptors star power on its roster arguably does not measure up.

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Pascal Siakam, when healthy and engaged as he has been since returning to form post-surgery a little more than a year ago, is in that class and has made it known that he intends to change any minds to the contrary about that fact this year.

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But where Antetokounmpo is surrounded by vets near or at that level in Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton and Embiid has James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, in Toronto it’s Siakam and 2021-22 all-star Fred VanVleet and a reigning rookie of the year in Scottie Barnes.

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There’s no question Toronto has talent and more developing each day, but stat for stat they don’t measure up with the Milwaukee’s or Philadelphia’s, the Boston’s or even the Miami’s of the East.

And if you listen to Vegas they trail Cleveland, Atlanta, and Chicago too.

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So, until that gap closes, and all indications are that is already happening, how does a team combat that star deficiency.

The answer is hard, physical play and that’s something this roster knows a little something about.

Over the course of 82 games, talent alone isn’t going to rule the day, every day. Stealing a game with hard play and more effort than an opponent is willing to expend can be not just an equalizer over the course of a long season but a different maker when it comes to watching a play-in game or participating in one.

That hard play, hard work approach is what Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse is preaching with the season opener just a couple of sleeps away.

“The ideal or the premise is that’s who we are and that’s the way we’ve got to play. And it probably is,” Nurse said of being the harder-working team. “We need to go out there and you need to feel us at the defensive end and understand it’s going to be a fight. Even if we can’t throw ’em in (score at will) — like the other night we couldn’t throw ’em in, but we’re going to keep trying. We’re going to be on the glass so hard that we’re not leaving until we get a bucket, that type of thing.”

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On that front, Nurse believes the current Raptors have a leg up on last year’s group.

“We didn’t know who we were at this time of year (last year), I think we know who we are, and we’ve got to bring it,” he said.

It should surprise nobody with even a rudimentary knowledge of this team that Nurse looks to his veteran starters to set that tone starting with his point guard Fred VanVleet.

“He sets it just because that’s his nature,” Nurse said. “He competes to win. That’s just who he is. He doesn’t know (any other way). You guys come to practice Monday and we’ll be playing games that are being scored and he’ll be out there fighting.”

VanVleet, though, has company in that class.

“I think Freddie does it and it gets handed off,” Nurse said. “I think Pascal does it and it trickles down. I think Scottie does it. When Scottie brings a super-energetic (mindset), he’s out there hawking the ball — the guy on the ball usually has four guys watching him. When they see him working hard a lot, they say, ‘I better get ready to go to.’ The tone has been set up there, and the guys behind him get to work.”

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Siakam, the poster boy in Toronto for star power and the man who will carry the bulk of the offensive load for this team, doesn’t give himself a pass in the play hard, work hard department just because he’ll be the guy putting up the flashy stats.

“It’s hard but we’ve got to be (that kind of team)” he said when asked about playing hard for all 82. “There’s a lot of talent around the league. I think that we have a lot of talent, but we also have character guys and guys that can do that. So, why not? Why not come every single night and try to grind every single game, be the hardest playing team? We have the personnel to do it, so I think that’s how we see it.”

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The test of that willingness will come right away with the schedule maker hitting Toronto with seven pretty tough contests right out of the gate.

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It starts with a Cleveland team on Wednesday that has added Donovan Mitchell to a group that already boasted Darius Garland and twin towers Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.

That is followed by a visit to Brooklyn where the artistry and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving reside alongside the enigma Ben Simmons. From there it’s back-to-back contests in Miami against a Heat team that prides itself on its lunch-bucket approach much the way the Raptors do.

Then it’s another back-to-back set against Philadelphia boasting Embiid and Harden with PJ Tucker added in for good measure this year.

The list of star power is long and if the Raptors don’t quite match it, they can make up for any shortfall being a team nobody wants to play for the simple fact that they make it hard on opponents.

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Both Gary Trent Jr. (hip) and Malachi Flynn (broken cheekbone) received medical clearance from the team to resume practising Sunday. Nurse said he’ll know more about their availability for Wednesday’s season opener over the next couple of days … The Raptors signed former Detroit Pistons’ guard Saben Lee to an Exhibit-10 contract and then waived him which allows the Raptors to stash him on their G-League 905 club as further insurance should injuries occur. Lee had been in Utah’s camp before he was one of their final cuts.

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