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How the revamped Raptors are learning to loosen up

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In the lead-up to a pressure-packed season, coach Nick Nurse is trying to transform the Raptors by infusing freedom and work.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

VANCOUVER — Every morning at Fortius Sport & Health, where the Toronto Raptors are training, the energy and bounce of “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire soaks into the air before the team sweats it out for hours.

It has a little significance,” says rookie head coach Nick Nurse.

“It’s mainly for me,” he quips later, bobbing along like he hasn’t been put in charge of the franchise’s biggest swing in history: convincing Kawhi Leonard to stay in Toronto long-term after trading local hero and All-Star DeMar DeRozan to get him, all while engaging Kyle Lowry, who still seems upset about the deal.

The song emanates so much joy that it demands an appreciation of the current moment. It takes one’s mind off their best friend being shipped away to San Antonio, or the uncertainty about a new home in a foreign country. The speakers blare and tensions falls away. Who else but Nurse, the piano-playing jazz aficionado, would believe in the power of music to unify?

The writer of “September,” Allee Willis, originally took offense to the so-called meaninglessness of ‘ba-dee-ya,’ but learned in the process to “never let the lyric get in the way of the groove” — a lesson Nurse surely wants to impart to a roster he has armed with maximum freedom in the hopes that it’ll play to the upper limits of imagination.

Don’t think. Just move. Create.

Danny Green, who was part of the deal that brought Leonard to Toronto, is surprised by the freedom everybody has. “Not just the guards but the bigs as well. The freedom to handle the ball, the freedom to do other things offensively.”

“It’s more push the pace, get more looks from the perimeter,” he adds later. “You don’t have to hold back as much if you’re me, second guessing which shots I should or shouldn’t take.”

Take Jonas Valanciunas, a seven-footer who entered the league as a post-up threat. Under Nurse, Valanciunas has free rein to dribble around in the half-court and zip passes all over the floor. Hyperactive reserve forward Pascal Siakam fits Nurse’s ethos already — he’d backflip down the court if rules permitted it. Backup wing Norman Powell, who lost his rhythm after getting injured last year, could channel his old head of steam, maybe taking a cue from Delon Wright, who will continue leaning into his indescribable game.

Don’t think. Just move. Leverage the game’s improvisational power. Trust the feel. Get in the swing of things, and it’ll work out naturally. Basketball is jazz, and all that.

“He’s open-minded, ready to adjust on the fly,” Leonard says of his new coach. “Just a brilliant mind.”

So the Raptors hope. Every NBA team is happy in September, after all.

A chunk of Wednesday is devoted to scrimmages: one-on-one, two-on-two, five-on-five with 15 guys, mixed into groups that aren’t expected to share the floor together. (“It was a little too close to reality today,” Nurse complains.) The coaching staff takes pains to avoid whistling down mistakes in an effort to mimic the flow and speed of a live game.

Afterward, Fred VanVleet struts around with assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren’s WWE belt wrapped around his waist. It’s merely a $6.99 toy, but it takes on a new meaning in the eyes of the world’s most competitive athletes, driven by the hunger for recognition and victory. Why not leverage those desires onto the monotony of the everyday grind — the same shots, drills, and sets — all year?

“It’s a new approach,” VanVleet says. “You want to have good energy when you’re trying to get this work in. It’s a long grueling season, and there are certain things you can do to keep the mood light.”

The Raptors have a shot at the Finals, even a title, but they have a lot to sort out first. Who starts? Who finishes? Will the bench mob flourish like in the past? Which wings will ride the pine as a result of the trade, and how will they react? It’ll take long hours and an adherence to the process following a post-season flameout that shredded the novelty of regular-season progress.

Dedication is taken for granted in the NBA. But even among the hyper-focused, not every team and every player works as hard as possible every moment of every day, nor do they enjoy every minute of it.

Monotony invites boredom. Boredom invites apathy. The grind remains the grind. When so much is at stake, it becomes easier when you remember that it’s also a game.