After their final pre-season game, a debacle of a loss to the Washington Wizards, you’d be excused for thinking the Raptors were in semi-rough shape. Tonight in their season opener however, a satisfying 109-91 win over the Detroit Pistons, it didn’t take long for the Raptors to remind us of one key fact: this is a good team.
Despite a slow start that saw some uncharacteristically sloppy play, the Raptors began to assert themselves with a sweet 33-point first quarter. The story for Toronto in that frame, as it was for most of the game, was the play of DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas. DeRozan led the Raptors to a lead in the first, with his usual combination of muscular moves to the net and free throws, and the squad never looked back. He’d finish the game with 40 points on 17-for-27 shooting, matched only by Valanciunas’ line of 32 and 11 rebounds (who also shot 12-for-14 from the free throw line). It was the most points scored by a single Raptor in a home opener, and the most scored by two teammates in a home opener in NBA history.
Oh yeah, and Jonas did this:
(He also elbowed the hell out of Andre Drummond early in the first quarter after the Pistons’ big man bit on JV’s pump fake (yes, again). Drummond continued to play but he was not much of a factor — 16 points, six rebounds, four turnovers, five fouls — for the rest of the game.)
For the rest of the Raptors, there were other good signs. Chief among them was the play of rookie Pascal Siakam. The young man from Cameroon got the start, with Jared Sullinger out indefinitely with an injured foot. (He was seen post-game on crutches wearing a massive cast.) And while there were the usual concerns about nerves and decision making, Siakam showed a couple of things. Most obvious: he can work. Siakam jumped out hard on pick-and-rolls and mucked up passing lanes and generally kept up with the speed of the game. Sure, there are times when he’s probably moving too fast, but as coach Dwane Casey has said, those are hard mistakes, things that can be improved with time. Siakam finished with four points and nine rebounds and looked like he belonged in the NBA.
For the rest of the Raptors, it was a lot of business as usual. DeMarre Carroll did a host of little things while hitting a couple of 3s, and grabbing seven rebounds. Cory Joseph chipped in six points and two assists — and one offensive rebound while sitting down. The pre-season explosion by Terrence Ross is apparently going to extend into the regular season, too. Ross played sharp D, made a couple of buckets (including a running hook shot) and even contributed three assists. The Raptors’ other rookie, Jakob Poeltl was also able to make a small impact. The big Austrian got his first NBA bucket and kept up his activity on the boards with two on the offensive end. (Still, five fouls while dealing with the Pistons’ bigs; welcome to the league young man.) That Wizards disaster feels like it happened a million years ago.
Obviously, I’ve left out Kyle Lowry here, who had a quiet night by his standards. Lowry shot a mere 3-for-13 from the field for 10 points, but added eight assists and five rebounds and did his usual batch of smart Lowry things. His game strategy as DeRozan started to get hot was simple: “Give him the ball.”
On that note, let’s go back to DeRozan, because holy shit. Smooth jumpers, inside and outside of the post play, drives to the rim — DeRozan would not be denied. I know he doesn’t have a 3-point shot, but good luck trying to contain the rest of his game. For his young teammate Siakam it was hard to describe. “It’s one thing to watch somebody on TV and see what he does every single night,” said Pascal. “Actually being there and seeing how effortless it was, it was amazing. It was just like poetry.”
For Valanciunas, the other dominant Raptor in the game, the summary was more succinct:
“We made history, man!”