Kyle Lowry openly laughed at the question.
Was he surprised the Raptors regulars looked so comfortable right off the bat in the first and only pre-season game they would all play together ahead of Tuesday’s season opener?
The Raptors regulars didn’t just look good Friday in Brooklyn; they looked middle-of-the-season locked in.
“It’s not surprising because we got good players,” Lowry said giving his questioner one of those Lowry shrugs that screams ‘Why isn’t this obvious to you?’
“We have been together — me, Norm (Powell), Pascal (Siakam), Fred (VanVleet) have been together three or four years. OG (Anunoby) going on three, Marc (Gasol) going on two, Serge (Ibaka) going on four, whatever it is. It’s not like it’s hard. We are pros and we know how to play off each other,” Lowry said.
But the biggest question going into the season is how good can this team be without Kawhi Leonard?
To say the returning Raptors are sick of this question is akin to stating the team is jacked to get their championship rings on Tuesday.
Of course they are sick of it. And of course they are going to refute the notion that they can’t be successful without you know who on the odd occasion when they actually agree to even discuss this particular topic.
Fortunately both Lowry and Gasol did exactly that Friday night following that decisive win over the improving but, on this night, seemingly fatigued Brooklyn Nets.
Gasol, a much quicker post-game changer than Lowry, who, admittedly, was getting some treatment, was up first.
“There were a lot of games last year (without Kawhi) and we played great basketball,” Gasol said. I don’t know how many of those we won, but I’m pretty sure it was a high clip.”
It was actually 22 games with 17 of them winding up as Raptors wins.
Now the Raptors were somewhat strategic with those 22 games, 10 of which came on the back end of back-to-backs. Toronto won eight of those.
Opponents over those full 22 games played at a .450 success rate compared to a .530 success rate for the portion of the schedule Leonard was in.
Still Gasol believes the team can succeed with their returning players.
“You fill the void as a team and you play differently but I think we have a lot of confidence,” he said. “We trust one another. We know what we are about. We know each other’s strengths, we protect each other’s weaknesses and that makes great basketball.
“We don’t have Kawhi and Danny (Green) but we have other guys that maybe last year didn’t have as many shots, or as much run and responsibility offensively,” Gasol said. “This year we’re (all) going to have a little bit more. The ball will continue to move and find the open guy. I think the most important thing is creating those triggers early in the offence that will (lead) to that movement and eventually find the open guy.”
Lowry believes success is in the offing for this team because they’ve already proven in the past they can win without Kawhi and he’s not just talking about the 22 games.
“Even before that with DeMar (DeRozan),” Lowry said. “I mean, basically, we’re putting Pascal in DeMar’s spot. They are not the same player but you have that same kind of system. You have a bunch of players who really want to play and win and play hard, and when you play hard anything can happen.”
In Lowry’s mind, this team was winning before Leonard came along and it still can now that’s he’s gone.
“We know how to win,” he said. “That’s the best thing about it. We’ve won and we won big. Even before the championship we won. We just happened to run into LeBron (James). I hate to bring the name up but he was the only person that stopped us from, I think, reaching our goal.”
Neither Lowry nor Gasol is saying a 60-win season and a repeat championship is in the bank, but both are suggesting it’s not out of the question either.
“We’ll see what happens,” Lowry said.
This team isn’t worried about the noise from outside. They could give two figs that Vegas has them at 33-1 odds to repeat or that the vast majority of the NBA media barely pay them lip service as contenders less than five months after winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“Obviously Kawhi is a very unique and special player who can create his own shot at any time,” Gasol said. “We just don’t have that right now so we do other stuff.”
Nick Nurse hashes it out a little further.
“Those two guys — Danny and Kawhi — brought a lot offensively and a lot defensively,” the Raptors’ head coach said. “That stuff is going to have to be shared. I hope and think it can be shared by in-house guys. It’s more of a responsibility for Siakam to guard a better player. OG, Norm , Fred, Pat McCaw — those guys have been around and know who we are and how we want to play. It’s just expanding their roles and raising their levels a little bit.”
Again no one is saying this will be easy, but there is a path to life after Kawhi for the Raptors.
WHITTLING DOWN THE ROSTER
The roster is rounding into shape.
With the deadline to be down to 15 bodies at 5 p.m. on Monday, the Raptors trimmed three more off the pile on Saturday and are now down to 17.
Waived were Cameron Payne, Matt Morgan and forward Devin Robinson.
That leaves two more cuts and, more importantly in the mind of head coach Nick Nurse, two more bodies to the eight he has already identified as his rotation.
In the rotation right now based on past performance and what they have done in camp are , Lowry, ,Siakam, ,Gasol, ,Anunoby, ,VanVleet, ,Ibaka, Powell and McCaw. Seemingly in after a strong pre-season is rookie Terence Davis Jr., although Nurse has not been definitive about the rookie’s status. That really only leaves one more spot from the group of Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson.
The Raptors will name their 15 roster members on Monday, but the actual rotation members may be an ever-changing situation.