Heck of a night, wasn’t it? Sure, it wasn’t pretty. The introductions lasted approximately 78 minutes. The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t an elite opponent. But the Toronto Raptors won, their two best players were excellent, and the team showed flashes of potential brilliance that could make this season really special. Here are five things that stood out.
Pascal Siakam Got the Start!
I have to be honest, I expected to see either OG Anunoby or Serge Ibaka starting at the 4 for the Raptors last night; seeing Siakam’s name there was a pleasant surprise.
Now, I’m still not sure I love Nick Nurse’s apparent plan to mix up his starting lineup depending on matchups; I still think NBA players favour routine and knowing their roles night-to-night.
That said—I understand where Nurse is coming from, in terms of maximizing versatility and preparing for different matchups in the playoffs, and if ever a roster was fit for trying this experiment (and making it work), it’s this one. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As for Siakam, the start meant he was guarding Kevin Love. It’s a fascinating matchup; when Love uses his strength to go at and body Siakam, there’s not much Pascal can do. But Love is no match for Siakam’s quickness!
And man, when Siakam gets going... it’s something to see. He makes it look so easy, getting downcourt and to the rim with so little effort. One third quarter sprint in particular caught my eye—Siakam picked up a loose ball, flew down court, and nearly bowled over Rodney Hood—and last year, he would have, and picked up the charge. This time? Siakam dished off to Leonard in the corner in time to avoid the charge, and Leonard drained the three.
Kawhi is Still Rusty, but, uh, Still Really Good
Hmm, 24 points and 13 rebounds from Kawhi Leonard in his first game? Yeah, I’ll take that! Leonard started out pretty flat, then looked really good in the middle two quarters, then—along with everyone else on the floor—looked pretty gassed in the fourth.
One shot that stood out to me was a second-quarter turnaround. He jab-stepped at the 3-point line, backed into Tristan Thompson, dribbled twice, faked left, turned right and elevated to shoot. A simple turnaround—but it looked so smooth, and Leonard so confident—I hadn’t seen that yet from Leonard in a Raptors jersey. It was gorgeous.
(Speaking of jab steps—Leonard has a deceptively quick one. It puts guys right on their heels. I guess when you’re a threat from anywhere on the floor, even a simple jab step has to be respected!)
I was also surprised at how often Leonard brought the ball up. That’s something we saw DeMar DeRozan do a lot more of over the past couple of years, and it took a lot of pressure off of Kyle Lowry and allowed Lowry to play off-ball more. I wasn’t sure if Leonard could do the same, but he doesn’t seem to have an issue with it. And while most of Lowry’s points last night came off the dribble, I’m sure it’ll help to have another capable ball-handler on the floor.
OG Anunoby got UP for a First-Quarter Dunk
Coming off the bench is an unfamiliar thing for OG Anunoby, and on his first touch, he traveled. But he made up for it on his next one! First, he stole the ball from Kevin Love, and took it himself the other way. Then he juuust about beat George Hill down the floor—but he didn’t quite, so he euro-stepped past Hill, got all the way up and threw down a monster two-hander:
We heard many times last season that Anunoby hadn’t yet recovered his full explosiveness after his ACL injury; have we finally reached that point?
Anunoby didn’t have a great game—perhaps, to Nurse’s point as mentioned above, this wasn’t his matchup—but both of his field goals came on dunks and he showed hops on both.
(And I can’t post that clip without mentioning the Jonas Valanciunas pass, can I? Sweet hot damn.)
Unfortunately Anunoby left the game in the fourth with an orbital bone contusion. That doesn’t sound good! Is masked OG in our future?
The Offense was Brilliant (for Maybe 10 Possessions)
As you’d expect from the first game of the season, about 95% of it swung from slow and boring to frantic and ugly; neither team played particularly well on either end of the floor for any sustained run.
For the Raptors, there were far more sluggish and awkward halfcourt possessions than good ones... but one those occasions when the Raptors hit their rhythm? My goodness. The perimeter ball movement was beautiful, with everyone sharing and making snappy passes to find the open man and get good looks from distance. I can’t wait to see that for more than just a few possessions!
One other thing I really liked, especially early, was how often Leonard received the ball on the move, towards the hoop. For a player as big and strong and skilled as Leonard, that’s a simple recipe for success; in the first quarter it led to two drawn personal fouls and one beautiful layup.
So Why Did the Raptors Only Shoot 20 FTs?
The Cavaliers had 39 free throw attempts, but Toronto only got to the line 20 times. Seems a bit odd! At one point, Kevin Love had 14 attempts and the Raptors only had 12! Did DeMar DeRozan take all the Raptors’ free throw mojo to San Antonio? Is the grand conspiracy against Raptors alive and well? Is the NBA gonna break out all the tricks in the season in which the Raptors have their best team, to keep the Larry O’Brien trophy from going north?
Nah. As Nick Nurse said in his post-game comments, the Raptors are trying to be more aggressive this year, and that led to a lot of off-ball and loose ball fouls—and let the Cavaliers get into the bonus early. You hope it’ll even out game-to-game; you also hope the Raptors will iron out whatever’s going with them from the line, and start hitting more than 60% of their free throws!
All in all, last night’s game was about what we expected. It was sloppy, the players are still getting to know one another and getting in shape. I know Friday’s game against Boston is a much more important matchup, and should be a better game, but judging from Boston’s play on Tuesday and Toronto’s last night, I don’t expect it to be much prettier. Hopefully the two teams prove me wrong!