There is no doubt we could ascribe the Raptors’ shakier moments in their first game of the 2019-20 NBA season to the emotional events that preceded it. On the opening night of their 25th season, Toronto played host to a ceremony that saw the Raptors unveil their first ever championship banner while the members of last year’s team received their bejeweled title rings. It would not have been out of place to have shed a few tears — at least one Raptor, Serge Ibaka, did — it was just that kind of night.
But we can only look back for so long. Eventually, Toronto and the Raptors have to turn to the future. And after a thrilling 130-122 win in overtime against the New Orleans Pelicans, we can begin to see what exactly that new day holds for the city and its team.
To begin with, let’s just get to it: Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, empowered now as perhaps the Raptors’ two best offensive weapons, each had themselves a night. For the first three quarters of the game, VanVleet looked to be in complete control, dropping 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, with five assists and four rebounds. This against the Pelicans’ bigger backcourt of Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, and even J.J. Redick. An apparent ankle injury near the end of the third would slow VanVleet, but not before he put up a new career-high of 34 points — to go with seven assists and five rebounds — and gave the Raptors the lead for good with a corner three.
Fred’s partner Siakam, meanwhile, was a tad slower in rolling — despite his steady accumulation of numbers throughout the game. As it stands, it appears as though Siakam will put up stats for the Raptors just by being on the court; he can’t help it! While Toronto played from behind for most of the first half, Siakam had eight points in the first quarter, then another eight in the second, and his rebound and assist totals just kept growing. He finished with his own 34 points, plus an eye-popping 18 rebounds, and five assists. However, Siakam would also shoot 11-for-26 on the night, with a lot of his more quote unquote advanced moves — fadeaways, mid-range jumpers, and the like — still looking like a work in progress. He also fouled out before the start of OT, putting the Raptors in a tough spot against a hungry Pelicans team.
But for all their athleticism and power, New Orleans still doesn’t have someone like Kyle Lowry. The Raptors’ captain, who of course was given pride of place by receiving his ring last and addressing the crowd before the game, didn’t shoot the ball particularly well (4-of-15) but was there to jump all over every mistake made by the Pellies. His 22 points, including a 3-of-11 night from deep, to go with six assists, five rebounds, and two steals belie the counterpunching nature of Lowry’s attack. We also saw him take a charge (of course), give a ref an end-of-quarter stare down (double of course), and fight for a continuation call (may Lowry’s quest never end).
The quintessential Lowry was seen particuarly at the end of regulation when he scooped up a loose ball, raced the length of the floor, and attacked the rim with reckless abandon as the clock ticked past 30 seconds remaining. The attempt was hopeless but it put Lowry at the line to tie the game — and insured the Raptors would get the last shot. A classic 2-for-1, and if not for Norman Powell’s wild and deep three that missed, it would have worked perfectly.
This, unfortunately, points to the only significant problem the Raptors are likely to face this season on a continuous basis — besides lacking a true proven superstar player. As long as this contest was, and as high as emotions were, the Raptors stuck with a short 8-man rotation throughout. This played a tad into the Pelicans deep 12-man group, and there were times when the Raptors definitely looked a step slow on the glass or on defense — their sloppiness also led to 16 turnovers, which didn’t help matters. For the bench’s efforts, Toronto got five points from Powell, along with eight rebounds and two assists, in 28 minutes; a strong 13-and-5 from Serge Ibaka in 26 minutes; and a productive if somewhat erratic 15-minute turn from Terence Davis, who chipped in with five points, five rebounds, and a pair of assists.
On any given night, this is manageable, but over the course of another 81 games, the Raptors are going to need to look elsewhere for production. They’ll get it from Siakam. VanVleet seems determined to provide it — even with a bum ankle. And Lowry will always be there (it was his three that iced the game for good). But a thin bunch, plus a relatively absent Marc Gasol (5 points), and the complementary play of OG Anunoby (an encouraging 11-and-7 line, plus stout defense), will make for hard work over the long haul. The Raptors will labour to raise their floor.
Still, what am I saying? That’s the old Raptor fan talking, the one already thinking and scheming on how this team can make the next step to join the league’s elite. The truth is, the Raptors have already made it. Their championship banner now hangs in the rafters of Scotiabank Arena, the rings of the team’s returning players are secured, the history books have been written. This is just day one of a new future — and I’m looking forward to wherever it may lead.