GANTER: All seems well in Raptors camp with season opener days away

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Complete and uninterrupted harmony among a group of millionaires and soon-to-be millionaires spending the better part of eight to 10 consecutive months together is, in a word, impossible.

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The good teams manage the rifts and disputes and keep the focus on the single goal of winning together. The great ones play for one another and actually enjoy each other’s company.

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The bad one’s never quite get a handle on the growing divide that gets so big it eventually eliminates any chance of making a real team.

The Raptors — and only those in the room and within the team know this for sure — were probably closer to the latter a year ago than the former.

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All for one and one for all was left behind at some point and those cracks and rifts grew into holes within the team that prevented that group even coming close to playing optimal basketball.

A big part of this Raptors training camp and probably the biggest reason for optimism for a team that has created little winning buzz outside of its own room is the apparent lack of that underlying tension within this roster.

Team harmony is fleeting and can change at a moment’s notice, but for now the feeling around this team is that harmony has been reached. We conclude this not based on one player or one coach saying that is so — anyone can say anything is true — but based on various players, particularly players who have every conceivable reason to be more worried about their own well-being than that of the team they play for, who have put aside situations that could be easily perceived as detrimental to their own good fortune to champion the team cause over their own.

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When the pre-season opened, there were questions about the futures of three key Raptors, all of them on the final year of their contract and any of them likely candidates to walk away from the team at the end of the year.

Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. of the Toronto Raptors walk up court.
Pascal Siakam, from left, Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. of the Toronto Raptors walk up court during the first half of an exhibition game against the Cairns Taipans at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 15, 2023 in Toronto. Siakam and Trent can both be free agents after this season. Photo by Cole Burston /Getty Images

Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr are all in that boat to this day. They can be offered extensions until June, but to date there has been little suggestion that is happening. Masai Ujiri said as much in his first public address of the new season in September.

Nothing appears to have changed with Game 1 of 82 fast approaching.

But what has changed is the mood around this team.

Trent appears to have brushed off what could have easily been taken as a knock on his game when he basically announced he would be coming off the bench rather than starting. As he suggested, the “writing’s on the wall” if you go by how he has been used this training camp.

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But rather than pout or bemoan his situation, Trent has opted to lean into it and thrived in the role of first man off head coach Darko Rajakovic’s bench.

His pledge to willingly do whatever the team needs of him to win games is a sentiment previously stated by Siakam and again yesterday by Scottie Barnes, who is not in any jeopardy of a lesser role, but is adamant that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to win.

A year ago, the suspected rift between the established — Siakam, Fred VanVleet and to a lesser degree Thad Young — with the still ascending group that includes Barnes was problematic.

But on Sunday it was Siakam positively gushing about the camp Barnes just went through and the positive changes he has seen in Year 3 for the former rookie of the year, while Barnes returned the kind words in similar fashion pointing to a relationship that benefits both players.

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“I think for me, I just like his approach to the game,” Siakam said of Barnes this fall. “He’s coming in every single day. I see him in practice, like he just has the same focus. I can see him just working hard. And you can tell in his eyes, like, he wants the opportunity to continue to get better. And I like how aggressive he is, having fun out there playing basketball.”

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Barnes, who followed Siakam to the courtside microphones that await a few players and the head coach following every practice, reiterated his respect for Siakam’s game, but took it further than that, too.

“I think I said it my first year: Pascal is my favourite player, just seeing what he does on the floor, being able to score the ball at an extremely high rate,” Barnes said. “He hits me a lot on those dunker passes when teams double him. Pascal, he can do it all out there on the floor, rebound, push it in transition, being able to score in transition, spin moves.”

Whatever fences that require fixing on this team stemming from last year, getting those two players in lockstep has to be right at the top of the list.

But all of those things are good early signs.

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Rajakovic, who is at the very centre of resetting the Raptors’ identity, likes the early indications he’s seeing.

“We have a great team chemistry,” Rajakovic said. “Our guys just enjoy being around each other. I think that being seven days in Vancouver, being around each other, was very, very important for us. We had a great team dinner over there with the guys. We had a bunch of laughs. And I think those moments are very important. But for now, our guys (are) doing a really good job with that.”

If memory serves, similar sentiments were said early on a year ago before things went the other way. So yes, maintaining this positive chemistry within the team dynamic is going to be crucial because nobody wants a repeat of last season.

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BARNES ‘FEELS GOOD’ AFTER TWEAKING ANKLE

Fear not, Barnes seems no worse for wear.

Some pain in his foot following an awkward landing in Friday’s final pre-season game had the team faithful and Barnes himself a little scared, but those concerns appear to have been premature.

Barnes was a full participant in practice on Sunday, three days in advance of the season opener on Wednesday at home against Minnesota.

“Feels good,” Barnes said of the foot. “Just a little tweak.”

But he admitted he wasn’t so sure in the moment.

“It was hurting a lot,” he said. “Whenever I get like a little ankle tweak, I get really scared. You know, I’ve had some of those in my … past. So just being cautious about it. That was just the main thing.”

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