What we’re looking for in preseason basketball, even when the game takes place in Japan, and yes, even when it starts at six o’clock in the morning, are positive trends. We want to see the defending champion Toronto Raptors take the floor against the Houston Rockets and play with some sense of form and style so as to predict how the regular season will go. That’s what we’re looking for — and that’s what we got. Well, sort of.
Though the score doesn’t really matter, it was heartening to see the Raptors comeback and win 134-129 behind some spirited play from their bench. For a team with championship aspirations, the Rockets showed what they can do — but when they went to their reserves, things slowly tilted towards the Raptors. James Harden led all scorers with a casual 34 points, including a 21-point explosion in the first quarter, but it was all for naught. Funny how that happens sometimes in the preseason.
To start things off, the Raptors’s offense had some impressive stretches, even though the team was playing without two of its main three initiators — Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. As a result, the ball found itself in the hands of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam a lot, with Patrick McCaw coming off the bench as Toronto’s main backup point guard (this last component is still very much a work in progress). Much of the Raptors’ offense came from Siakam working from everywhere on the floor, and VanVleet looking to create off the dribble. The former finished with a team-leading 24 points and 11 rebounds to go with four assists, while showing off his new level of comfort (if not necessarily any new ability); the latter dropped a steady 16-5-5 with 50 precent shooting from the floor.
VanVleet’s minutes coincided with the strongest run of play from Serge Ibaka, who started 5-for-5 through a few pick-and-pop opportunities (and a made 3), to finish with 18 points. Joining FVV in the backcourt was Norman Powell who also showed some of what we’re likely to see from him this season: some aggressive finishes at the rim and a few made threes. Powell finished with 14 points and largely did his job. Unfortunately after that, it starts to get dicey for the Raptors, as their offense was not quite able to hold up. And their defense? Well, the first half score (85-73 for Houston) tells the tale on that one.
Toronto’s main bench look in the first half featured McCaw, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, OG Anunoby, and Chris Boucher. That lineup had trouble scoring and stopping Houston. Some bright spots: Anunoby (7 points) showed a few flashes of what he’ll be able to do this season — a stout drive, some good passes, solid recovery defense; Thomas (8 points) meanwhile went off for a pair of threes and did not seem overwhelmed; and while Davis (8 points) picked up a few bad fouls (don’t foul Harden shooting a 3!), he also did what he could to make things happen at the rim (including one monster jam). For a guy getting his first real taste of NBA-level basketball, it was encouraging to see.
Rounding it out for the Raptors was Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the point guard look from McCaw — and the team’s comeback, led mostly by the hustle of Cameron Payne, Davis, a confident Malcolm Miller, and the bouncy Oshae Brissett. To begin with, somehow Boucher did not put a three up at all in his 18 minutes, but still finished with 12 points. He played out of the centre spot, and held his own with seven rebounds. Meanwhile, RHJ had a rough go of it, getting nutmegged by Harden at one point and generally looking a little scrambled; he finished wth seven points. McCaw, unfortunately, took the brunt of it though. With the ball in his hands, McCaw was unable to get much going for the Raptors. He had zero points in 21 minutes — albeit with four assists. Toronto will need more for him, a lot more.
Down the stretch, the Raptors went deeper and deeper into their bench, as did the Rockets. It was an outcome that favoured the Raptors as the game started to get a little wilder, with Houston’s lead — which got as big as 17 — disappearing and eventually turning into a 5-point Toronto margin. Special note here on Miller who popped into the game’s final drive to put up nine points and permenantly turn the tide. Yes, the Payne-Davis-Miller-RHJ-Brissett lineup got the Raptors back into it, which is... not something we’ll ever say again (until maybe Thursday’s rematch). What we learned about Toronto’s unknowns seems apparent — for now. But if this game is any indication, with preseason basketball, you just never know.