There have been first game illusions before in Raptors history — it’s important to remember that. The 2014-15 team for example, won its opener and 13 of its first 15 games before, well, you know how that ended. Last year we watched Jonas Valanciunas lay waste to Detroit, expected a leap, and then watched him seesaw up and down for the rest of the Raptors’ run. The season opener can only suggest so much, especially one against the Bulls — this version of the Bulls — who arrive with some ready-made caveats, e.g. the Bulls suck now. What then is there to takeaway from the Raptors’ first game of the season, a 117-100 blowout of a win in which the starters had to return late in the fourth quarter just to hit the 30 mark in minutes played? What... indeed?
As my headline implies, the Raptors are having fun. That’s the main thing. Suddenly the ball is zipping around the court, daring passes are being tried at every opportunity, teammates are egging on others to try wild and crazy things, and — against the Bulls at least — it appears to be working. For all the presumed frustration in the idea of the Raptors running it back, it certainly didn’t look like anyone on the team was having a rough time. Least of all the Raptors’ younger players who showed out with style in a second quarter that featured an all-bench lineup, anchored by veteran C.J. Miles, and a 20-2 run that put the game out of reach for Chicago.
“[The young guys] played extremely well,” said DeMar DeRozan. “They led the second group, they brought the energy. They picked it up and you can tell they were having a lot of fun doing it.” This second group featured Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet in the backcourt, Miles on the wing, Jakob Poeltl in the middle, and rookie (sensation?) OG Anunoby at power forward. The idea of putting one of Kyle Lowry or DeRozan with this group didn’t appear to enter coach Dwane Casey’s mind — and as the results showed, it wasn’t necessary. “I think they have a real good feel for what they’re doing out there,“ added Lowry. “I love what they did tonight.”
Here come some highlights of what the Raptors did:
Gimmie dat #RTZ pic.twitter.com/T4O3ttVW1o— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 20, 2017
An OG welcome to the @NBA. #RTZ pic.twitter.com/BuM7TF4RhT— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 20, 2017
@delonwright #RTZ pic.twitter.com/e1mJEuJOge— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 20, 2017
This is but a smattering of the good times — there was also Wright’s no-look over-the-shoulder pass to OG in the corner (who eventually missed the lay-up), or the high-low pass from OG to Poeltl, or Miles’ rather insane barrage of threes (he shot 6-of-9 from deep and finished with 22 points). The lead Raptors — DeRozan and Lowry — barely had to do anything. DeMar did look to continue his passing ways, which meant more turnovers (five) but also more assists (five). And Lowry picked his spots too, finishing with a quiet 12-point, 9-assist night that saw him at one point dancing and singing to the music being played in the arena during a break in play. “It was fine for me. I had the opportunity to sit on the bench to watch, cheer, have fun, and get a win. It was a game for me to see this is the type of things that can happen,” said Lowry. “A game like tonight was fun to be a part of because everyone was involved and everyone did their job.” I ellipsis-ed it out, but Lowry was also quick to note that every game will be different (as in, not against the Bulls), but there’s no reason to think the good vibes can’t remain.
The Raptors began their opener with an extended video montage of each player’s face in close-up while a Stranger Things-esque theme blared. (It wasn’t the official music but it did sound like S U R V I V E.) While I’m still partial to the idea of using Northern Touch — the finest rap anthem this country has ever produced — as the team’s theme song, this was a canny move from the Game Ops department. (A canny move from Game Ops? It’s a new season, baby!) The new slogan for the Raptors is “North Over Everything,” with the final word upside down — a nod to the Stranger Things way of looking at things. But it did more than support a marketing slogan: it suggested a season-long theme.
Raptors go... Stranger Things? pic.twitter.com/5AR03zIYBK— Daniel Reynolds (@aka_Reynolds) October 19, 2017
Stranger Things is a show steeped in — or choked by — nostalgia. But it also has a tremendous amount of narrative fun with its archetypes. There’s the rag-tag gang of kids, the single mom, the good guy town sheriff, the bad boy team captain, and more. It’s a show that proves to be satisfying in familiar ways, succeeding because it knows what it is, owns it, and goes about its business anyway. There are some critics of the show (and, let’s extend this comparison out: the Raptors too) who would say there’s nothing inspirational, or aspirational, to be found here — it’s all a cynical ploy to cash-in on what the target audience liked when they were younger. But I don’t know about that. When Stranger Things hits its stride, like the Raptors, there are these perfect moments when it all comes together in extremely gratifying ways to suggest maybe there is something more to be found there.
Admittedly, this new slogan isn’t as culture busting or catchy as the original. For all time, “We the North” will be hard to top. But as the Raptors flipped their usual script on opening night, despite all of the team’s familiar faces, maybe it fits.