Let’s get the caveat out of the way early: every tantalizing thing a young Raptor did, every C.J. Miles bomb that dropped, and every sound defensive rotation the team made during it’s 117-100 season opening win came against the Chicago Bulls, a team whose offense ran through Robin Lopez, in 2017.
With that substantial qualifier out the way, the Raptors were humming on Thursday night, with much of the tune reverberating from unlikely sources while the team’s staples searched for their groove.
The new starting five of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas was lethargic out of the gate, unable to pull away from Chicago’s G-League-ish lineup due to some iffy defending and clunky half court creation. No need to panic, probably. For a lineup that played literally zero minutes together last season, scraping by with a slightly positive NET Rating was a fine result. As that group adjusts to the new movement-heavy system and learns one another, it should be a step up from the leaky starting fives of the recent past.
DeRozan appears to be the furthest away from finding his comfort zone in the new offense. He wasn’t bad in the opener, per se. Toronto need didn’t more than his 11 points, six boards and five assists. The five turnovers he picked up do suggest some friction, though, as he tries to alter his long-standing identity on the fly.
“You’re asking him to try to do something against his nature, which he’s trying to do for the team,” said Dwane Casey after the game. “While our other guys, they have to play that way ... We may have two different styles, or semi-styles. I loved the way we played. We’ve gotta play that way. But again we’ve gotta find a niche for Deebo, and to find his scoring niche within what we’re doing.”
“Kyle’s a great three point shooter,” Casey added when asked about Lowry’s comfort within the new scheme. “So it’s easier for him. Where DeMar has to get a bounce to get his shot off. And he will. He’ll find it within what we’re doing ... There’s places within the offense where he’s gonna find a rhythm for it.”
All told, the modernization of the Raptors looks be progressing well. Toronto racked up 26 assists — a total that would have been a story last season. And with the help of Norman Powell (3-of-6) and C.J. “Two Legs” Miles (6-of-9), the Raptors’ bombed threes with a volume and accuracy befitting of 2017. Miles was particularly outrageous, with many of his triples coming with Bulls defenders firmly inside his jersey.
Two Legs flying around a pin-down for a catch-and-shoot three will surely be among the most satisfying plays in the Raptors’ playbook this year.
Also pleasing to the eye: OG Anunoby making bruising and crafty plays — and sometimes combining both traits in one.
OG finds Poeltl under the rim #bucket #wethenorth pic.twitter.com/0TXTWULbtj— Sam Holako (@rapsfan) October 20, 2017
Playing two months ahead of his expected schedule, the Raptors’ first-round pick made a strong claim for a regular rotation spot with nine points, three boards and a pair of dimes to go along with a made corner three. As Casey alluded to after the win, OG — like any rookie — will experience ups and downs in his first season. But his play against Chicago definitely makes the Raptors’ bench at the three and four spots look a little deeper than anticipated.
Miles and Anunoby were two members of a Raptors’ all-bench look that blitzed the Bulls. Against real opponents, one of Lowry or DeRozan will likely always be on the floor. It’s comforting to know, however, that the unit of Miles/Anunoby/Delon Wright/Fred VanVleet/Jakob Poeltl is capable of posting a +62.9 NET Rating over 12 minutes against GarPax’s finest.
Wright didn’t score like Miles, but still offered peak mid-October entertainment. Sprinkled in with his 13 points and five assists were an array of nifty and ambitious passes. Some led to buckets.
Wright drops off the nice dish to Anunoby for the @Raptors jam! #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/FxBy1sTSZ1— NBA (@NBA) October 20, 2017
Others merely solicited collective oohs and ahhs from the ACC crowd. His passing was mostly a known commodity coming into the season. His finishing around the rim? Not so much. But in the opener, Wright attacked the rim with more confidence than he’d ever shown during his first two seasons, even connecting on a physical and-1 in the first quarter.
Lastly, in what is starting to become a trend, Jonas Valanciunas was the stat line champ of the season’s first game. In 30-plus minutes, Valanciunas put up 23 points, 15 boards and two assists — and he wasn’t even up against Andre Drummond. One dish to a cutting Lowry late was reminiscent of, well, a past that has never existed.
“He’s doing a good job of finding the openings, making decisions, and he’s doing so many good things,” said Casey. “Much better defensively, he had the verticality, he didn’t turn his back. He did a good job tonight.”
You would expect that Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka won’t combine for just 31 points on most nights. That Valanciunas, Wright, Anunoby and the rest of the Raptors’ new secondary weapons carried the team with such ease should spell good things for Toronto when teams that aren’t the Bulls start coming to town.