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Five thoughts on last night: Raptors 122, Trailblazers 104

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The Toronto Raptors easily dispatched the Portland Trailblazers in front of a satisfied sellout crowd in Vancouver, and we have thoughts!

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

NBA preseason basketball games are usually long and hard to watch, full of missed chippies, goofy mistakes and cheap fouls. (Lots and lots of fouls). These games are for players to shake off rust and build chemistry, and for coaches to see what they’ve got at the end of their benches.

Last night’s Toronto Raptors-Portland Trailblazers contest was no different—except it totally was, because it featured the first on-court appearance of Kawhi Leonard in a Toronto Raptors uniform. A few quick thoughts on what went down:

Leonard looked as good as anyone could have hoped

19 minutes, 12 points, and raucous cheers from the Vancouver crowd every time he touched the ball. Pretty good! The first jumper looked awkward—a leaning-to-the right three-point attempt as the shot clock wound down that clanked off the rim—but the second, a simple pull-up from 18 feet, looked silky smooth, touching nothing but net.

Leonard finished 3-8, with most of those misses coming up short; he also shot 6-11 from the free throw line. That’s definitely conditioning, and he’ll get there. As we know, Leonard missed most of last season, so he’s got some catching up to do in terms of basketball shape.

Most notable, perhaps, were Leonard’s drives to the basket. Last year’s injury hasn’t slowed him down or made him less aggressive! He looked comfortable and confident. A great sign of things to come.

Leonard and Lowry are gonna be just fine

Lotta talk last week about chemistry and how Leonard and Kyle Lowry would gel, and Lowry basically said “we’ll be fine, we just need to get out there and play.” Head coach Nick Nurse let them do exactly that, pairing them throughout the game minute-for-minute. There were no alley-oop connections or “how did he know the other guy was even there!” moments, but again… they were fine. There was even this bit of fun that didn’t count:

Another note, after the first shooting foul of the game, which Serge Ibaka drew on Jusuf Nurkic, all five Raptors got together and chatted about the set. Lowry was smiling, Kawhi was looking intense, Ibaka was talking up a storm. We definitely shouldn’t be reading into this—these moments happen a dozen times a game—but again, it’s another indicator that this is basketball, it’s what all these guys do, and while there may be growing pains, they clearly want to come together as team and win.

So how about that starting lineup?

Something else we shouldn’t read much into was the starting five of Leonard, Lowry, Ibaka, Danny Green and C.J. Miles. First of all, I suspect that, had he been available, OG Anunoby would have taken Miles’ spot. And second of all, I suspect we’ll see one or two more starting groups throughout the preseason.

It was interesting to note, though, that at the end of the first quarter, Nurse put out a five-man bench unit of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas that played well into the second. That unit may have had Miles in the Powell role, had Anunoby been available; could it be the new Bench Mob 2.0? With Jonas simply taking the Jakob Poeltl spot? Could be. Again, too early to tell, but one unit with Ibaka at centre and another with Valanciunas at centre might be the way to go.

Oh, those lengthy defenders

In another “too early to tell” category, the Raptors defense looked a little scrambly in the first half; lots of running out at shooters and jumping in passing lanes. I think that’s to be expected in the first pre-season game (and the first time this starting lineup has played together). (Things seemed more settled when the second unit guys were all playing together.)

One sequence with 9:50 or so remaining in the first quarter showed one of the reasons to get so excited about this team’s defensive potential, though. As the Blazers tried to work the ball around to get a good shot, the Raptors kept jumping the lanes, and deflected two passes, the second one out of bounds with two seconds on the shot clock. Danny Green then deflected the inbounds pass, forcing a tough look with 1 second on the clock.

This is the thing I think I’m most looking forward to on D with the Raptors—it’s not lockdown, one-on-one D or rim protection (although we did see awesome blocks from Ibaka and Wright last night)—it’s the way all the length and quickness forces opposing offenses to extend, to take those extra seconds to get into their sets, to think twice about which passes they want to make.

In other words, just making it generally harder for opposing teams to do what they want. The Raptors definitely have the personnel for it.

And in terms of the offence…

The Raptors shot 51 free throws (36 in the first half alone) and that’s not something you’ll see often in the regular season. But a quick look at the shot chart shows a total of nine non-paint two-pointers:

Toronto Raptors vs. Portland Trailblazers shot chart, September 29 NBA.com

That’s pretty ridiculous! And awesome! Sure, you’d like the three-point percentage (12-for-35, 34.3%) to be a few points higher, but the number of high-value, high-percentage looks is through the roof. Fourteen corner threes! I’m sure it won’t always be this lopsided but it’s a great continuation of the work the team did last year.

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I wish I had more time to talk about Norm Powell’s minutes and the incredible chemistry between VanVleet and Siakam, and I can’t believe I didn’t mention Jonas Valanciunas becoming a point-center, but, hey, it’s preseason—I don’t wanna burn myself out before the games even matter! See you the morning after Tuesday’s tilt with Utah.