Five things to watch as the Toronto Raptors resume their title defence

The defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors resume their title defence when they face the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday. Here are five things to watch:

The Quiet: The Raptors boast one of the best fan bases in the NBA, but won't have their "sixth man" in the bubble. Some 300 fans will be shown virtually on 17-foot courtside video boards — conjuring images almost of a video game for those watching on TV.

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Coach Nick Nurse isn't sure how his team will react. He's quickly learned to keep his voice down when giving out instructions.

"There's a little bit of atmosphere at these games to be more quiet as a communicator, because everyone in the whole gym can hear everything you're saying. I kind of came to a point where I didn't say much in the first three scrimmages.

"We're going to miss our fans and the electricity outside the arena too. But hopefully everyone is going to be watching and cheering, and we'll feel them somehow anyway."

The Depth: The Raptors fared well in the first part of the season despite a revolving door of a roster thanks to injuries. But the Raptors tip off the restart the closest they've been to full health since the fall.

Marc Gasol missed 28 games with a hamstring injury that likely would have continued to nag him if not for the four-month hiatus. After a lengthy 2019 that saw him win the NBA championship before leading Spain to the world championship, the 35-year-old Spaniard was run ragged. So the break did him good. He returned noticeably slimmer and rested.

He returned to action in the Raptors' second scrimmage game, summing it up as: "Really good. Really good. Really exciting. I know it might have been a scrimmage but I was geeked up the whole day. Excited about it, and happy to help the team win."

Most Improved: On the heels of picking up the NBA's most improved player award, Pascal Siakam didn't let up this season. But without last year's superstar Kawhi Leonard to carry the offensive load, is Siakam ready to step into those shoes and be the guy who can close out games — particularly while battling some of the giants in the league like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons?

The good news is the 26-year-old expanded his playmaking and shooting this season, and was averaging career highs of 23.6 points and 7.5 rebounds a night when the NBA suspended play on March 11. He's poised to become just the third player in Raptors history to average at least 23 points and seven rebounds, joining Leonard and Chris Bosh.

The Bubble: Will it hold? The NBA is making history by playing inside a bubble during a global COVID-19 pandemic. The league chose Walt Disney World before the coronavirus exploded in the Sunshine State. Florida set records for deaths over three consecutive days last week, raising the death toll to nearly 7,000.

Meanwhile, players and team staff are under strict health guidelines on the NBA campus. There is daily testing and all movements are greatly restricted. So far, there hasn't been a positive test in the bubble.

But it certainly hasn't been without its complications. Several players have had to quarantine after stepping outside, sometimes accidentally, the Disney boundaries.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams is in a 10-day quarantine. He was excused by the team to fly home to Atlanta for a funeral, but then went to a local strip club later that night.

The Social Justice Message: The NBA is allowing players to wear messages such as "Black Lives Matter" on the backs of their jerseys rather than their names, selected from a list the league drew up. While players such as Norm Powell wasn't pleased they had to stick to the NBA's list — he wanted "Am I Next?" — all 17 Raptors have chosen a message.

All-star guard Kyle Lowry will wear "Education Reform."

"I think it starts with the youth. Myself, growing up in the inner city, we weren't really taught African-American history. We weren't taught about our ancestors, our history," Lowry said. "It sucks because the type of neighbourhood I grew up in, they don't get the same education that they get in the suburbs and the more polished neighbourhoods. ... they don't get the tax money. They don't get the opportunities that the other kids do."

Lowry and his wife have taken it upon themselves to teach their two sons about Black history.

"We're not going to wait for anyone else," he said. "We're gonna do what we have to do and what we’ve always done to make sure our kids understand where we come from, what we stand for, (and the things) that Black people have to encounter."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020

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