Let’s just admit some preseason assessments of the Raptors have proven to be correct so far. We knew they’d have trouble rebounding, that it would take time to develop team chemistry, that Kawhi Leonard would have to work off some considerable rust. In Friday night’s contest against the Boston Celtics, these were all issues for Toronto — for a time.
In a tight game through three quarters, the Raptors were indeed out-rebounded 37-30, and were -7 on the offensive glass; it felt as though Boston was able to get to every loose ball. Meanwhile, through the first half Toronto’s offense went through some periods of extreme stagnation, with sub-40 percent shooting percentages and an ugly iso-heavy offense. On top of that, the first quarter saw Kawhi get off to a slow start, missing his first two shots, while committing two turnovers.
But that’s a backwards assessment, one that looks at where this Raptors team began instead of where they’re so obviously going. As the clocked ticked forward, Toronto only got better. By the end, the Raps would go on to beat the Celtics, 113-101, zooming away with a roar.
It didn’t always feel so obvious, however. If not for the surprising play of Serge Ibaka in the first half, it’s difficult to envision where the Raptors would have been in tonight’s contest. Ibaka had 13 first half points (on 6-of-7 shooting), keeping Toronto afloat while the team found its collective footing. Things looked shaky beyond Ibaka, with the Celtics getting the shots they wanted and pushing their lead to as much as eight points. A buzzer beating three from Fred VanVleet to end the half kept the Raptors closer than it felt.
Then Kawhi started cooking. After a first half that saw him struggle to nine points on 3-of-11 shooting, Leonard looked determine to get to his spots. “For sure, he’s definitely being more assertive of taking over or wanting to take over,” said long-time teammate Danny Green of Kawhi’s performance. “You can tell he’s a competitor, he wants to compete, he wants the ball, he wants to be on the floor at all times. And he wants to make the big plays, the winning plays, and offensively he’s doing a good job of getting us there, taking us there, carrying us. He’s making those big plays for us, especially on the offensive end of the floor.”
And so it was. Leonard put in 15 points in the quarter, staving off the pressure of the Celtics by himself. He’d go on to finish the game with 31 points (10-of-25 from the field, 9-of-9 from the line), 10 rebounds, and three assists. As with his Raptors debut, there was a calmness around Kawhi as the temperature in the arena went up. The ball would find him, he’d make his move, and something good would usually happen for Toronto. The team went into the fourth quarter with a lead — and more importantly: with a surplus of confidence.
So what of the other issues? The Raptors eventually finished the game shooting 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from three (on 35 attempts). They completed 24 assists on 42 field goals and kept their turnovers relatively low (just 12; five in the second half). And they found the lineups that worked — out went C.J. Miles and Jonas Valanciunas for the most part, in came Fred VanVleet for stretches, Serge Ibaka (21 points and six boards in total) any time Al Horford got going, and OG Anunoby instead of Pascal Siakam due to the former’s shooting range. In one sense, some of these lineup combos barely know each other. And yet they started far more effectively mashing the Celtics as the game continued.
“A win is a win. Take every possession, every day to get better,” said Kyle Lowry, after he’d once again made winning plays down the stretch. “Continue to get better as a team. We look at it like every play in the game means something. That’s what we did today.”
After a huge three from Danny Green (14 points, five rebounds, four 3s), there was Lowry with another, and then a long jumper. He also found the time to draw a few more charges, just to remind us of his presence of mind. (One of those calls came against Marcus Morris who tried to work Lowry in the post — don’t these guys ever learn?) Lowry would finish with another sharp shooting line: 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-5 from deep. That he also had six rebounds and six assists against zero turnovers proves something else — Lowry is ready to go right now, today.
The Raptors’ lapses are still there, however. Coach Nick Nurse lamented the usual mental gaffs that will always happen game to game, minute to minute. It really did feel like the Raptors couldn’t win for losing when their defense forced a long jumper but then lost track of the rebound. Leonard looked clunky again for stretches of the first half. Toronto was sloppy as a team — until they weren’t.
“Just playing hard and wanting to win the game,” said Leonard of his new team’s performance together. “That’s all I think about when I’m out there. Trying to help my teammates, make plays for them. I look at them, the way they’re playing, too, that motivates me to play harder. That’s all I do is try to go out there and win.”
Yes, for these Raptors it may be as simple as that. Just go out there and do what needs to be done, early season assessments and first half judgments be damned.