The 2019-20 NBA season is set to restart later this month at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
While 21 of 22 teams are preparing to return to action in their respective markets, the defending champion Toronto Raptors have reconvened in Fort Myers, Florida, conducting workouts at Florida Gulf Coast University before travelling to Orlando on July 9.
As the team prepares to begin its unique journey in pursuit of a second NBA title, veteran centre Serge Ibaka took time to speak with reporters and provide an assessment of what he's seen from his team so far.
"I think physically, it's going to take us a little bit of time. (That's) kind of normal, right? But mentally, I think we're ready. Mentally, as a team - I can see from everybody, I think mentally, we're ready. We know what is waiting for us out there and now it's time to get into game condition and then, we're going to be good to go."
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Toronto's mental preparedness will be crucial as it embarks upon a season unlike any before. As four months will have passed between the final regular-season games played on March 11 and July's seeding games, the 2020 postseason won't begin until mid-August, meaning the Raptors' title defence will last for at least 14 months. When asked if it feels like the team is still defending its 2019 title given the unique circumstance, Ibaka acknowledged that things have felt a bit different but that the team's focus lies ahead.
"It's been a little bit weird with everything that's going on right now but one thing we know is that it's over. Whatever happened last season is over and we are trying to put our mindset (as) ready to go for this one. And we know it's going to be hard, it's going to be a challenge, everybody is going to try to come for us because we are the champs, so we have to be ready."
While the four-month break has made things weird with respect to continuity, one benefit it has provided this Raptors team with is health. According to Spotrac's Injured List Tracker, Toronto had missed the fifth-most man-games due to injury (219) prior to the season's suspension in March, with every rotational player outside of OG Anunoby missing extended time. Ibaka, who missed 14 of the team's 64 regular-season games, expressed his excitement about the team being at full strength.
"I'm very excited, I can't wait because we didn't really have everybody during the season this year, and I think it's going to be a little weird, in the beginning, to have everybody at the same time but I think it's going to be a good thing because we need that, and I can't really wait to see how it's going to work out for us, having everybody back."
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Of the Raptors 17-man roster, 10 players were members of last year's championship team. Of the remaining seven, five are rookies, while both Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson both have postseason experience as rotational players. According to Ibaka, this championship DNA and postseason experience bodes well for the team. "We believe in us, we have the experience, we have the championship mentality already, right now, we have confidence and right now it's just time to go to work and like I said, we're ready."
Ibaka, who turned 30 this season, used his past experience with successful teams to gauge just how prepared he believes this Raptors team is for a deep postseason run.
"I saw how everybody was in great shape. Everybody came here in great shape and as soon as we got here, everybody was starting to put in work. I've been in the league for 11 years; you can see when people are locked in and they're ready mentally and when they are not. I can tell you right now, mentally, everybody is ready."
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Upon their arrival to Orlando, the Raptors will begin a training camp period in which they will be allowed to do group workouts and 5-on-5 drills. Ahead of the season's restart, Toronto will face its first opponent as it takes on the Houston Rockets in a restart scrimmage at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 24.
The Raptors will play their first of eight "seeding" games when they take on the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, Aug. 1 at 8:30 p.m.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.