It wasn’t a test for the Raptors, not really. Even with the familiar C-A-V-S block letters on the opposing jerseys, this obviously is not the same Cleveland team. Still, as a symbol, as a changing of the guard, as a burning effigy even, the Raptors’ opening night 116-104 victory over the LeBron-less Cavaliers was satisfying. It wasn’t always pretty, but it did indeed feel like the start of something brand new.
If there was a test to be taken by the Raptors on Wednesday night, it was administered by the team itself. This is a new squad in Toronto, made up, yes, of many of the same components save a couple of significant ones — a new head coach with some potentially fresh ideas in Nick Nurse, and, of course, Kawhi Leonard as the central star. If nothing else, tonight’s win suggested some things the Raptors will be able to do well, and other things that, uh, need work.
First, the positives. Kawhi Leonard comes (almost) as advertised. He’s clearly not in peak form yet; he finished a mere 9-of-22, got to the line only six times, hit but one three, didn’t always know where he was going with the ball. And yet: Kawhi did have 12 rebounds, his arms swinging shut like an alligator’s jaw more than once on an errant carom; there were also those times when he decided to shut one foe down, and then another, in their quest for the rim. There was also something else, an ineffable confidence Leonard brought to the floor. When the ball ended up in his hands, it was as if the Raptors could — relax is the wrong word — let’s say, they could feel safe. That’s the superstar effect.
Not to be outdone, Kyle Lowry sought to remind us all that he provides his own specific effect. Lowry got downhill a few times to the rim, and bombed away from three with abandon. When the game was going the Raptors’ way it was often because he was on the floor. Lowry’s 27 points (on 10-of-12 shooting, including 5-of-6 from three) were a game-high. That he also dished eight assists while guiding, urging, cajoling his team is just about the perfect picture of what Lowry brings to the Raptors.
As Nurse joked after the game however, this wasn’t all a pretty picture for Toronto. Despite a lead that grew from 13 in the first half to as large as 20 in the second, the Cavaliers managed to get within striking distance (eight points) down the stretch. Kevin Love was annoying with 21 points and too many trips to the free throw line; Cedi Osman kept wheeling to the net; Jordan Clarkson somehow scored 15 points. The Raptors only had nine turnovers in the game, and they shot 49 percent from the field and 42 percent from three, but they fouled way too much — the Cavs shot 39 free throws to Toronto’s 20 (of which they made only 12) — and looked a little clunky on both ends at times.
Fortunately, rough patches for this Raptors team can be smoothed over simply by going to the next guy in the rotation. C.J. Miles didn’t have it (1-of-3 from the field, three fouls in 10 minutes)? Here’s Danny Green to go 3-of-7 from deep for 11 points and five boards. Missing Delon Wright? Why not give Norman Powell a bit of run for five points and a power dunk. My goodness, Pascal Siakam got the start, played less than 20 minutes and had enough highlights to tantalize us all for another 48 hours. He made Love’s life a hell, and pitched in with 13 easy points. And of course, when the Raps’ subs got really stuck, Fred VanVleet was there to manufacture a bucket. He’d finish with 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting including some truly ridiculous finishes at the rim. These guys weren’t even in tip-top shape yet either — so, look out.
Something else to watch: the pivot battle between Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. On the one hand, Valanciunas, the game’s starter, was massive on the glass with 12 boards. He didn’t get many opportunities to score, but his passes (including a beauty to a driving OG Anunoby) were extremely refreshing to see. On the other, the match-ups worked against him. Nurse opted to go with Ibaka at centre to combat Love and if nothing else, something is solidifying here (besides Ibaka’s finger joints). Serge really can only play at the 5 now, and he should not be anywhere near the focal point on offense. Kudos to the big man for mixing it up on the boards (though it’s also how he managed to foul out) and for blocking shots (three in total), but a 2-for-10 night could become a little too common for Ibaka.
Or maybe not. Remember, there’s still a long way to go, and many more things to discover about this Raptors team. In the recent film First Man, there’s a line: “We need to fail down here, so we won’t fail up there,” and to be honest, it applies. Admittedly, winning a basketball game isn’t a life-and-death struggle, and it’s not like landing on the moon. The sentiment is simple enough to re-apply here anyway.
The Raptors are not exactly a finished product yet, and they don’t have all the answers yet either. But it does feel like they’ll eventually take-off — and do it in a big way.