Raptors’ Serge Ibaka: Team is mentally ‘locked in’ for title defence

TORONTO – The NBA released its schedule for team scrimmages on Saturday before the season’s resumption.

The Toronto Raptors will see the Houston Rockets on July 24, the Portland Trail Blazers on July 26 and the Phoenix Suns on July 28.

This announcement puts into reality just how close we are to the resumption of the NBA season, and also how little time NBA teams heading into the bubble will have to prepare for the eight seeding games and post-season.

In this regard, thanks to their special circumstance as a Canadian team, the Raptors have been somewhat advantaged in the lead-up before the team travels to the NBA’s Disney World campus next week as they’ve managed to hold a pre-bubble restart camp in a bubble of their own in Naples, Fla.

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That Naples bubble has allowed the team to, most importantly, stay safe in a state with exploding COVID-19 case counts and participate in valuable conditioning work before they’re allowed to start working at 5-on-5 again. As Raptors forward Serge Ibaka admitted in a conference call Saturday, “Physically, it’s going to take us a little bit of time.”

Thankfully, getting their wind back seems to be the only concern for the Raptors from a competitive standpoint. As far as where their mental focus is right now, this is a team that appears locked in and hungry to win.

“Mentally, I think we’re ready,” Ibaka said. “Mentally as a team, I can see from everybody, I think mentally we’re ready. We know what is waiting for us out there, now it’s time to get a little bit (of) game condition and then we’ll be good to go.”

Expanding on this, Ibaka said he can tell his team is already prepared for the battles ahead mentally because of the attitude everyone brought to camp.

“I saw just how everyone is in great shape. They came here in great shape and as soon as we got here everyone was starting to put in work,” Ibaka said. “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’re not. So I can tell you right now mentally everybody is ready. Everybody is ready.”

It’s this self-belief among the Raptors, described by Ibaka, that explains why the defending-champion squad has high expectations for itself entering the restart.

“Everything,” Ibaka said when asked what he believed the Raptors’ ceiling was. “We believe in us, we have the experience, we have the championship mentality already, we have confidence. But now it’s time to go. Time to go to work, and, like I said, we’re ready.”

The confidence Ibaka has in his team also stems for the fact the Raptors figure to be fully healthy in the restart for nearly the first time nearly all season, something he said he’s “very excited” about.

The optimism Ibaka had during his media availability with the Raptors on Saturday is something that’s mirrored all other team members who’ve spoken during this pre-bubble camp — and it’s an indication of just how good the team appears to be feeling about itself.

Hearing about how the team is still a little off conditioning-wise is understandably worrisome and frustrating for fans of the team. But as Ibaka said, Toronto is a team that seems to be laser-focused on the task at hand right now.

Returning to top physical shape is something that will come over time for all the teams entering the bubble. Being prepared mentally is something that may never happen for some teams, however, and right now the Raptors are already there.

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