C.J. Miles sees a fire in Kawhi Leonard, says Raptors have bad taste in their mouths

C.J. Miles thinks the Toronto Raptors can be special. On one level, this should not be the least bit surprising: They won a franchise record 59 games last season, then traded for the best player the franchise has ever employed. The Raptors were already one of the deepest and most balanced teams in the league; the presence of Kawhi Leonard also means they can walk into any Eastern Conference playoff series believing they have the most talented player on the court. 

Of course, this is far from the first time there have been stories about the Raptors being different and having a chance to be special. I have personally written several of them and then watched LeBron James crush them in the playoffs. In Toronto, there is an understanding that, beyond the changes to the roster and any experiments tested by coach Nick Nurse over 82 games, this team has to approach everything it does with playoff success in mind. 

"It's the mental side for us," Miles told CBS Sports on the phone. "It's nothing physical. It's not the actual skill sets. It's about locking in and understanding that it's a marathon, not a race."

Miles raved about the Raptors' athleticism and interchangeable parts, their mix of youth and experience, the growth he has seen from the up-and-comers who comprise their bench mob. He also summed up their best attribute rather succinctly: "We got a lot of guys, man."

On an individual level, Miles made it clear that he is ready to bounce back from a difficult first season in Toronto, and by that he did not mean simply that he'd be more efficient. While that is part of the plan -- he wants to "make sure the other team has to pay for any space they give me and any slip-up on the defensive end" -- he would like to remind people that, just because he's a sharpshooter, he is not only a sharpshooter. Miles spent his summer working on his strength and conditioning so he can play the type of defense that will make it hard for Nurse to keep him off the floor. 

"That was one of the biggest things that was the most frustrating for me: not being able to be able to move and be in places where I should be able to be," Miles said. "Especially when you know where you're supposed to be and you can't get there. That was tough."

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow. 

CBS Sports: Since the trade this summer, whenever people talked about the team they'd add the caveat, "if Kawhi is healthy, if Kawhi is back to where he was." Based on what you've seen, is Kawhi basically the same guy he was before the injury?

C.J. Miles: Yeah. He's been great. Obviously he had to play some basketball, get his sea legs under him because he was out with injury, as far as really getting back to the grind of every day, the travel, the two-a-days and all the things you do during training camp. But if you've seen some of the preseason games, I know it's just preseason but, still, that's him finding his rhythm. He's been able to do much more than the -- air quotations -- "people" have been saying all summer -- the reporters or statisticians, whatever you want to call 'em, all the numbers guys.

CBS: What's it like playing with him and just being around him? I saw Danny Green said he was much more vocal now, and I was like, "Kawhi, vocal?"

CM: Yes, he has a quiet demeanor. Everybody knows that. But he speaks in the huddle, he's been vocal during practice, he cracks jokes like every other guy when he's with the team. It's hard for people to see that from the outside because when they see him just sitting somewhere, he's minding his business. I think the narrative can be shifted either way, but he's been extremely vocal, you can tell he's ready to compete. His fire is lit. He's trying to win some games. 

CBS: You've obviously known Nick, he's not new to you, but it's new that he's the guy in charge -- what makes him unique as a coach?

CM: The biggest thing is being creative, I think. It's been extremely fun since I got back, a couple weeks before I started camp. He's not afraid to try some things on either end of the floor -- different rotations, different guys, trying to figure out what can make us click so we can be ready for anything or any situation. There's gonna be times where there's gonna be injuries, there's gonna be fouls, there's gonna be matchups that other teams are going to throw at us. We've got so many interchangeable pieces; he's not afraid to test the waters a little. 

CBS: In the playoffs it seemed like every team needed to be able to play big or small, fast or slow, motion or ISO. Do you think that attitude will help you guys?

CM: You have to be multifaceted. There's no way you can win without it. Even the Warriors, with the way they play up and down, when the game gets down to the last three, four, five minutes, they figure out how to run sets. They figure out how to get guys to their spots. They're able to defend. They're able to do the things that can win them games and win them championships. I think that's because they learned how to play every single way and they can put different lineups out there.

CBS: Nick wants to force more turnovers, run more, be super aggressive. That seems like more fun, but also maybe more work, maybe. You like it?

CM: Yeah. Especially when you have a team that's as deep as ours, it allows you to do that. If he wants, we can play all 12 of the guys, and you're allowed to play at that pace. You can basically do the hockey thing, you can change the whole shift. But also, the more and more you can get to the point where guys are just playing basketball, they don't even have to run sets, you allow guys to be creative and you allow guys to just play, it makes everything harder for the other team because nothing's predictable. It's open. It's almost to a point where, if you're getting stops, if you're getting out and running, it's organized pick-up now. So guys are allowed to have the freedom to play basketball. Now, when the game is getting to the point where you gotta run plays, nobody is prepared for 'em because you haven't had to run the same 10 sets all game. 

CBS: You said camp was more chippy than last year. Why do you think that is?

CM: I mean, just the competitive nature of guys coming back with a little bad taste in their mouth. The young guys coming back and being better. Everybody pushing each other and trying to just compete. Making each other better every day. That's another one of the benefits of having 10, 11, 12 guys that can play in the rotation: every scrimmage, every drill is competitive because everybody can play. We've got guys in the rotation that want to earn minutes, that want to play, and they compete for it every day.

CBS: Is this the year people outside of Toronto find out how good Pascal Siakam is?

CM: I sure hope so. I mean, even before I got here, he's gotten better throughout the season and then, being with him last year, being a part of the bench mob with him, seeing all the talent he had and all the things he was able to bring to the basketball floor, along with just the energy alone, he changes the game. So when you add to the skill set with the things he added to his game over the summer this year, I think a lot of people are going to be taken by surprise and find out things that we already know here. 

CBS: Some people thought Kyle Lowry would be mad because of the trade and let that affect his game. It doesn't seem like that has happened at all -- what should people expect from him this season?

CM: For him to be Kyle. For him to be an All-Star point guard and go out there and do his job. He goes out, he competes every single night. That's one thing that you are never going to have to worry about from him. He's been competing like he should be, getting after it, trying to figure out how to get guys in the right spots, figure out the new pieces. He's going to be Kyle. That's pretty much the only way I know how to say it. 

CBS: Last year, so much happened: You become a father, but on the court you call it a frustrating season individually. There's a knee injury, complications from dental surgery, an illness. How do you put all of that in perspective? 

CM: Still waters don't make skillful sailors. That's pretty much how I look at it. It was just tough. That was the most stuff off the floor I ever really had -- that's not even including having a kid, which is a blessing, and I'd never complain about it in any type of way, but it definitely makes it hard, basketball-wise, in that situation. Trying to help your wife, trying to help a newborn, everybody knows you don't get much sleep. And then I had the dental surgery and all that stuff and I think my body just kind of broke down on me a little bit. 

CBS: How did that affect your summer?

CM: It just created an even greater focus. I was in a position where, everything that I had, when we got to the playoffs, playing as hard as we can, giving everything I had is not enough. It's a terrible feeling, at least in my mind. Some people say, "I gave everything I have and I can feel good about it." But, nah. I mean, obviously, there's a sense of accomplishment, you leave everything out on the floor, it's a little easier to live with sometimes, but for me last year, it didn't sit with me well. At all. By the time I got home the next week in San Antonio, I was back working. I needed to be able to be ready. I felt like biggest thing was I wasn't able to give everything I feel like I'm capable of giving.

CBS: You missed some games here and there, but in general you were mostly on the floor. Were you trying to keep that stuff on the low and push through?

CM: Yeah, I just played through it. But, also, that's my job. I'm supposed to do that. If there's a way I can get out there and try to help my team, if I can get on that floor, then I'm going to be out there. If I was out, it was because I had to be. That's just the way I am with that. That's the way I was taught. I came in under a hard-hat coach, Jerry Sloan. That's the habit I was taught from the beginning.

CBS: You have a reputation for being a good interview, which is part of why we're talking right now. So, are there pros and cons with that? Do you ever want to just be a jerk to us? 

CM: I couldn't be a jerk. Obviously after some games, during some times, you don't want to talk about some stuff -- or, if you know you're about to get a question about something you don't want to talk about, some days you're like, man. But my biggest thing is you treat people how you want to be treated. And I know you've got a job to do just like I got a job to do. So, for you to be able to do your job, you gotta be able to ask those questions, you gotta be able to get information. And if I have information, that's selfish of me to hold onto it, knowing that you need it for your job. That would be like my coach knowing if a player wanted to go left every single time and him not telling me. And I'm also just grateful for the opportunity to be where I'm at and be in this situation. Everybody knows I'm not shy, I like to talk. I think when I'm done I'll probably do something with that. But, that's the way I look at it, man: I can't be mad at you for doing your job, ever. 

CBS: Does that mean you want to be a broadcaster or in media?

CM: Maybe in radio. I don't know, especially right when I finish, whenever that is, I don't want to be traveling around right when I finish. I want to take some time to be able to live. I want to check my mailbox every day. I want to mow my own lawn, things like that. I want to live a regular life. So if I can find some type of gig that allows me to not have to travel in and out so much, then I'll probably jump on it. We'll see. 

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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