After eagerly waiting all summer, fans breathed a sigh of relief this weekend following Saturday night’s easy victory over the Portland Trailblazers. And they’ll get another chance to watch what this group can do tonight against the Utah Jazz. Continuing their Northwest escapade, the Raptors and Jazz tip-off at 9pm EST in Salt Lake City.
Kawhi Leonard, who scored 12 points in 19 minutes against the Blazers, will look to build off of his strong opening-night performance against a defensively adept Jazz team. Kyle Lowry also showed flashes of being in mid-season form, making 8-of-8 free throws and a three-pointer. He assumed a relatively quiet role on offense overall though, acting more as an opportunist instead of the team’s primary ball-handler.
The real star, and the guy most fans are expecting big things from this year, was Jonas Valanciunas. JV was featured a ton on the offensive end, and even showed off a new quality to his game — high-quality shot creation — a number of times, including a coast-to-coast fast-break ending with a (I still can’t believe it) Euro-step finger-roll. Good Lord, that’s a lot to take in.
He finished Saturday’s game with a team-high 17 points and seven rebounds on 50 percent shooting from the floor in just 19 minutes. We’re all expecting an encore on Tuesday evening from Lithuanian Lightning (I guess he’s finally earned the nickname).
Where to Watch:
9 pm EST, Sportsnet One
Toronto — TBD
Utah — TBD
Toronto — OG Anunoby, questionable (personal reasons)
Utah — none
Focus on Chemistry, First and Foremost
So, things are well in Raptorland right now. After an anxious summer and training camp, fans were treated to a win Saturday that seemed to satiate most concerns held by adoring fans coming into the game, as well as creating the sort of buzz that often follows championship-level teams around all season.
I’m pumping the brakes here — I’m not declaring anything with that last sentence, I just need that to be clear.
What I am declaring, though, is that Toronto will be a highly scrutinized and fervently watched team this year. In other words, they will need to earn every bit of respect from the entire NBA, because teams will be watching.
What Can We Take Away from Saturday’s Game?
It’s easy to imagine that the Raptors will be an incredibly creative team on offense, and a locked-tight juggernaut on the defensive end. These are assumptions of course, but in some respects they’re also the low-hanging fruit.
Against Portland, the Raptors displayed an ability to find and shoot the highest quality shots an NBA team can get — three-pointers, free throws and from the restricted area — at a rate fans have never seen before. The team’s offense was top-five last season (second overall) and it seems to have taken yet another step in the ongoing evolution from archaic to post-modern simply by making an effort to get looks in these three areas.
[Insert “preseason means nothing” disclaimer here.]
It was a great game, and the guys from one to seventeen played with incredible energy. But there were plenty of ways the team needs to and will improve upon before the start of the regular season. For instance, nailing down shooting strokes (both Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, respectively, missed free throws and three-pointers they will almost assuredly make after finding their rhythm) and learning where each teammate likes the ball on offense.
For all the passing we saw Saturday, would you be surprised to learn the team only had 15 total assists? I certainly was. Once the guys start to gel — something I think will happen relatively quickly — we’ll be cheering for arguably the most dangerous team in the East by virtue of their offense.
A Quality Opponent, even If It’s Preseason
The Raptors had particular trouble last season against the Jazz. Utah’s coming off a 58-point win — fifty-eight — against the Perth Wildcats, and yes, while it wasn’t against an NBA team, fifty-eight isn’t the sort of difference you just shrug off. The Jazz are coming into this season having made no serious changes to the roster; no doubt looking to continue their strong finish to last year. Their drubbing of the Wildcats lends credence to them doing just that.
With a completely healthy lineup, Utah will offer Toronto another solid opponent on which to sharpen its claws prior to opening night’s split against Cleveland in just over two weeks from now. However — it’s just the preseason, don’t read too much into the results!