Toronto’s two-game winning streak came to an end on Thursday, as they fell 118-111 to the Rockets in their second of two preseason tilts at Tokyo’s Saitama Super Dome.
Maybe it’s the latent post-title giddiness for hoops, or the necessary excess of caffeine that accompanies at 6am Eastern start, but as preseason games go, Thursday’s was pretty damn exciting — at least early on.
It began with a jolt to the system by way of a Fred VanVleet-Pascal Siakam lob hookup on the run. Good morning, indeed.
From there, different Raptors traded turns standing out for pockets of the game. Early on it was Siakam, falling into an easy 8-4-4 first quarter line simply by existing on the floor. He’d finish with an efficient 16 points, seven boards, four assists and two steals in 22 minutes, the kind of line that is becoming increasingly more ho-hum from Siakam, who is incredible.
Dotted around Siakam’s displays of a growing comfort as the top guy were attempts by OG Anunoby to flex some of the secondary option muscles Siakam toned so successfully last season. The results were... uneven. With a wobbly handle and a lack of planning, OG filled the bucket with a floater early, but followed that up with a string of doomed drives. Tyson Chandler’s ancient ass’ swat late in the early second quarter ended Anunoby’s offensive experimentation for the night, but that didn’t keep him from making an imprint on the game. If Anunoby earns himself All-Defense honours come season’s end, consider this the day the hype train got fired up. A strip steal, a charge taken and a defensive back-like collection of a Rockets outlet pass stood out from a tantalizing defensive showing for the sideburn-rocking third-year wing.
Anunoby wasn’t the only Raptor to crank the defensive knobs following the ragged and sloppy opener on Tuesday. During a second-quarter that saw Toronto outscore Houston 40-25, the Raptors’ defense flashed The Quality that made it so terrifying last season: defensive stand, rebound, run-out, bucket, rinse, repeat, ring. Among the main benefactors of that quick-strike offense was Norman Powell, who seems resistant to ceding any starters minutes to Fred VanVleet at the two. Powell poured in as many points as minutes of action he saw (22), canning 5-of-7 threes and 7-of-11 field goal tries overall. That he was in control, within himself, and turnover-free was a throwback to the times at which Powell has been at his most effective, operating as an opportunistic fourth or fifth option, picking apart an already-compromised defense.
Essential to Toronto’s second quarter run of Rocket-snuffing was Marc Gasol, who is a defense unto himself. But there’s a limit to what even a walking legend like Gasol — who was making his preseason debut after that real drunk summer he just had — can do when stuck playing with humps. Over the final six-ish minutes of the third, Gasol moderated a group interview for the available minutes in the wing rotation, anchoring a unit featuring Patrick McCaw, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Matt Thomas. It wasn’t awesome, as Gasol’s best efforts to pass guys open were negated by those guys’ inability and/or refusal to shoot. That lineup bled away an eight-point halftime lead to the point of a 90-90 draw heading into the fourth.
Of that group of dudes on audition, McCaw continues to be among the more disappointing — especially considering his all but guaranteed spot on the roster. McCaw, with his endless movement, gives the illusion of doing good things when he’s out there, but his kinetic energy doesn’t take him anywhere; he’s the basketball equivalent of a moron with a fancy vocabulary.
Hollis-Jefferson sometimes emerges from his chaotic handle with a good idea or two, but sometimes not. The Stanimal does not look like an NBA player. Through two games, it’s Terence Davis (7-5-1 on 3-of-8) and Malcolm Miller (8 points, 2-of-4 on threes) who’ve proven most worthy of run as reserve wings.
Nick Nurse didn’t seem concerned about a W to begin the fourth quarter, as end-of-bencher experimentation took priority — rightfully so in a meaningless game. An 11-0 run early the frame vaulted Houston ahead 104-96 midway through the quarter, and hope of a Raps comeback with the likes of Isaiah Taylor and Dewan Hernandez getting run seemed slim.
Speaking of slim, it was Chris Boucher’s standard dominance against G League talent that nearly brought the Raptors back from the dead. He chipped in six points and three boards in nine strong minutes, and even blocked an above-the-break three. With Hollis-Jefferson serving up a mixed bag at best, and the Raptors likely needing some load management-related fill-in minutes in the front court this year, Boucher might be proving worthy of more than simple human victory cigar duty at the end of blowouts. With jet-lag likely to be weighing on the Raptors when the Bulls visit Toronto on Sunday, consider me in favour of starting Boucher in one of the front court spots and seeing what he can do against real NBA players for an extended stretch; we know he can punk the league’s fringe, let’s see if Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are still too much for him.
More importantly than anything else, the Raptors look set to depart Japan injury-free. Two fake games remain. Ring night is just 12 days away.