One of the key components of any successful team is depth. Over the course of an 82-game regular season a lot can happen. Thanks to injuries, illness and off-nights, even Mr. Dependable can disappear for a game here or there. Having a solid set of reserves can help weather those bumps and bruises without lasting damage.
For players that are not always in the rotation, staying ready on their own time is a must. One way this happens is through three-on-three sessions that take place on the practice court three-and-a-half hours before game time.
“Every game day, they’re up here,” Raptors assistant coach Jama Mahlalela said at the practice court at Air Canada Centre. “Before the game, playing three-on-three, or two-on-two. After practice days, they’re in here. Sometimes after games, they’ll come up and play. Julyan [Stone] and Dwight [Buycks] both will come up after games regularly.”
When Terrence Ross missed Toronto’s victory against the Golden State Warriors because of a sprained ankle, reserve Landry Fields slid into his place in the starting lineup for his second start of the year. After the game, Kyle Lowry singled out the professionalism Fields brings to the floor every day.
“We said this in the whirlpool,” Lowry said. “We’ve got great 15, 14, 13 guys. We’ve got guys, Julyan, Buycks, Landry, Steve [Novak], they’ve been true professionals. People don’t see it from the outside looking in, but they’re as big a part as this team as anybody. Me, DeMar [DeRozan], everybody else.”
Lowry’s appreciation for his teammates extend far beyond his post-game media scrums.
“Guys like Kyle or DeMar text us, tell us they see us getting extra work in, tell us to keep doing what we do,” Stone said. “That’s something that grows on you. When people acknowledge you when you’re working, even if you’re not playing, you’re getting that respect from everybody, that’s big time.”
Mahlalela agreed with Stone.
“To have a star player, a starter playing big minutes say, ‘That was a good job,’ or, ‘You went in today?’ That’s great,” Mahlalela said. “It also inspires the starters as well. The thing with these guys is, it has to be every day. Our guys are in every single day working on their games.”
“We put our whistles away,” Mahlalela said. “They just play. They call their own fouls. It’s intense. There’s trash-talking going on, it’s intense. It’s a battle. We want to emulate the game as much as possible so we just let them play. They’re NBA players, they want to win every game they play so it’s competitive. If we’re playing the Kings, or playing against Greivis [Vasquez], they want to win.”
Stone acknowledged that it can get heated on the practice court, but it’s a positive competition.
“The fouls you get in a game, for the most part, we’re fouling way harder during our three-on-three sessions,” he said.
Thanks to the post-practice work (and stints with Raptors D-League affiliate in Bakersfield for Buycks), Toronto’s reserves have been ready whenever head coach Dwane Casey has had to call on them. As a result of spending so much time together after hours, the bench has grown extremely tight. When someone is needed to step in, as Fields was during Sunday’s game, the players who helped keep him ready share in his excitement.
“Me, Steve and Dwight were Landry’s biggest fans Sunday night,” Stone said. “I told him before he got into the game, ‘We live through you, man. We live through you tonight.’ It was awesome to see him succeed in a win.”
More than just Lowry or DeRozan sending motivating check-in texts, the guys in the locker room genuinely care about each other. Whether they’re playing together on the ACC floor or the practice floor after a game they haven’t logged any playing time in, they share a common goal.
“I think everybody is close,” Stone said. “Everybody talks to everybody. Everybody is excited for everybody’s individual success and the team success. The people on the team really ride for each other, no matter what it is, off the court or on the court. We stick together.”