It’s been 6 long months, but the Toronto Raptors are back playing NBA basketball.
The Raptors kicked off pre-season with a 97-89 win over the Dirk Nowitzki-led…sorry, I meant the Kelly Olynyk-led Celtics, in Beantown. Tyler Hansbrough (more on him later) and Rudy Gay led the way for the Raptors, with 17 points each, Jonas Valanciunas had a double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) and the Raptors as a team shot an impressive 52% from the floor. The Raptors also out-rebounded Boston, 46-26.
Offensively it was a case of the very good, and the very ugly for the Raptors. As mentioned, the team shot the ball well from the field — although not from 3 — and beat up the Celtics in the paint. But after looking dominant early in the game — jumping out to a 14-2 lead, thanks in-part to Valanciunas picking up where he left off in Summer League — the Celtics took advantage of some REALLY sloppy turnovers by the Raptors to go in at the half only trailing by 5.
The Raptors turned the ball over 16 times in an error-strewn 1st half (and 26 times in total), which led to 19 points for the Celtics. You could put many of the turnovers down to good old pre-season rust – a DeMar DeRozan palming violation, and Amir Johnson stepping on the baseline after coming down with a defensive rebound seems typical of a team shaking off those summer cobwebs – but it was rough to watch, regardless. Some of the more frustrating turnovers came when Gay and Johnson attempted to force the ball into Valanciunas in the low-post. It was the right idea, but bad execution.
The Raptors did manage to clean things up in the 2nd half, however, and after the Celtics put up a strong 3rd quarter led by the impressive Jared Sullinger -- the most impressive Celtic on the floor, in fact -- Toronto finished the 4th quarter in the ascendancy; a 11-3 run giving them a stranglehold in the game that they wouldn’t relinquish.
Ultimately, of course, results in the pre-season matter little. The Raptors went 6-1 in last year’s pre-season and started the regular season 4-19; so yeah, take a lot of these final scores with the proverbial pinch of salt. What matters is establishing some chemistry between the guys on the floor, allowing players to try out various elements of their game that have been worked on in the summer, and giving Dwane Casey the chance to experiment with the rotation, and mix and match different lineups – Casey used 11 different players by the end of the 1st quarter, so mix and match he definitely did.
So the final score aside, there were a lot of positives to take away from the game as far as individual performances go.
Valanciunas looked great early on, and his teammates looked for him often in the post, where he looked very comfortable. We’ve all waxed lyrical about how much more of a physical specimen Valanciunas is now compared to this time last year, but it can’t be stated enough. He just looks so much more like an NBA centre a year on from his rookie season. He used that newly-acquired bulk – and great footwork – to his advantage against the Celtics, getting points off offensive boards, and establishing himself as a real presence down low. Some sloppy fouls led to an early night with 3 minutes to go in the 4th, but it was a productive 24 minutes overall for the big Lithuanian.
On the subject of physical alterations...
It might be too early to call Rudy Gay’s eye surgery an unmitigated success – although I’m sure it’s already made him a safer driver on the road – but he looked very smooth against the Celtics, particularly in the 2nd quarter, when he scored 10 points, on 5-6 shooting. There was still a few customary Rudy Gay long 2s – advanced metrics, be damned! – but overall Gay mixed up his game nicely, driving to the rim as well as shooting from the outside. Gay finished 7-11 from the field. Nice and efficient.
Elsewhere on the wing, DeMar DeRozan wasn’t quite as smooth with his jump-shot, and missed all 3 of his attempts from downtown (yeah, a 3-point swishing DeMar isn’t a thing yet, check back later) but he did a great job of going into the post, and using his height and some great spin moves to abuse the Celtics back-court pairing of Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee.
But stealing the show on the wing, for me, was Terrence Ross. Ross was really disappointing during Summer League, when the majority of us were hoping that he’d dominate the relatively sub-standard opposition, in the way Valanciunas ended up doing so spectacularly. In Vegas Ross looked like a spectator. In Boston, he was anything but. Ross varied his game really nicely, looking aggressive from the start as his drove to the basket for his first 2 buckets. Down the stretch Ross kept up the energy, throwing down a thunderous dunk in transition, and finishing with 12 points, on 6-10 shooting, and 4 steals. Ross actually saw slightly more time than DeRozan and Gay, and it looks like Casey is going to use the pre-season to give him an opportunity to earn some serious minutes in the rotation, come October 30th.
And speaking of earning serious minutes in the rotation: Tyler Hansbrough's performance against Boston may have gone some way to earning him those come the regular season.
It took one pre-season game for Psycho-T to go from being one of my least favourite players in the league, to someone I’m going to love this season. He was relentless against the Celtics, terrorizing them on the boards (he had 6 offensive rebounds) and getting to the line more than any other player in the game. Hansbrough doesn’t seem to have a ‘pre-season gear’, so he may have caught the Celtics off-guard as they went through the pre-season motions, but he looked mighty impressive nonetheless. If Hansbrough can bring that type of energy – crashing the glass, getting to the line, and generally creating havoc– when the season begins, he’s going to feature heavily in the rotation. He really is the type of player a coach like Dwane Casey loves.
Casey experimented with Hansbrough at centre in small-ball lineups, that featured Austin Daye and Landry Fields (briefly) at the 4, and it was a very effective lineup for the Raps. Of course, against the Celtics, an undersized team that can’t rebound, you can get away with playing Hansbrough at the 5, but it’s unlikely that Casey will be able to do that against the bigger teams in the conference – your Bulls, Pacers, and Nets. It’s something interesting to keep an eye on, however.
The other new additions to the roster had so-so nights. Austin Daye failed to impress in limited minutes -- defensively it's hard to hide him at the 4 -- while Dwight Buycks was reasonably quiet, seeing time at point-guard as the game wore on, but playing off the ball as well. And D.J. Augustin had a particularly rough night, missing all 5 of his shots, and having two attempts blocked at the basket.
Kyle Lowry looked reasonably sharp – and in great shape, it must be said – but the drop-off at point-guard looks like it could be a steep one.
Otherwise, Quincy Acy, Steve Novak, and the 3 training camp invitees, Carlos Morais, Julyan Stone, and Chris Wright, saw no playing time, although it’s a sure bet that they’ll feature as pre-season wears on.
The Raptors head home to face the Minnesota Timberwolves in their 2nd pre-season game on Wednesday night and one thing to watch will be the 3-point shooting.
Against Boston the Raptors attempted just 11 shots from downtown – only making 2 of them – compared to the Celtics’ 24 attempts. This was due in-part to the Raptors ability to dominate Boston on the inside, creating high percentage looks in the paint. But the 3-point shooting has been dismal over the past few years, continued to be so against Boston, and the team won’t make any strides this season if they can’t improve in that facet of the game.
The Raptors have talked a good game when it comes to shooting from downtown, but we will see any evidence of a summer of hard work, on the court?