Although a lot has changed since last season — the Toronto Raptors had significant roster turnover this offseason, they wore their new excellent Icon Edition jerseys, and the games are now being played in empty home stadiums — the end result was familiar. As they are wont to do, the Toronto Raptors handled business against an inferior opponent in the Charlotte Hornets, winning 111-100 in our first in-game glimpse of the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors. Although it was preseason, any Raptors basketball, especially when it ends with a win, is a welcome sight for those who root for the team.
The team, however, was missing their floor general and leader in Kyle Lowry, who was in the news today after he was given permission to stay in Tampa as the team made the trip to North Carolina for the first of two games there against the Charlotte Hornets. Speculation on the reason for his absence is unnecessary, as there are many justifications as to why a 34-year-old point guard would be given a break after a short offseason. For what it’s worth, head coach Nick Nurse claimed that Lowry was in “fantastic shape,” and that there were “no concerns about him at all.”
As a result, Norman Powell slotted in to a starting role alongside Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and new addition Aron Baynes.
Early on, it was not the on-court play that stood out, but rather the atmosphere in Charlotte’s home arena, Spectrum Center. The empty seats were striking and the lack of artificial crowd noise, which was eventually added, made for an eerie ambience. It was a stark contrast to the aesthetic of the Orlando Bubble, where every effort was made to distract from the fact that games were being played in what was essentially an empty gym. This is only the second night of the post-Bubble NBA, and still the preseason, so it is safe to assume that we will adjust as the league works to put out a better product.
On the court, Toronto came out looking sluggish, getting in a 25-6 hole early against the Hornets. Still, there was enough for Raptors fans to get excited about. Fred “Five-Fingers” VanVleet showed why he is a premier pickpocket in the NBA, collecting three steals in the first quarter. Cult favourite Matt Thomas hit a couple threes early, giving some hope to those who want him to get regular minutes for the squad, and OG Anunoby showed some extra juice off the bounce, looking like a player ready to contribute more on the offensive end.
All eyes in the early going, however, were on Pascal Siakam. Coming off a frustrating, inconsistent performance in the Bubble, fans wanted to see some positive signs from the star player. He was shaky in the first quarter, but three second quarter three-pointers reassured those of us projecting a major bounce-back from Siakam.
Like the Raptors, the Hornets were integrating some new faces. Gordon Hayward, their splashy free agent acquisition had a solid outing, finishing with 11 points in 20 minutes. LaMelo Ball, the third overall pick in the 2020 draft, also made an impression, bringing a street ball-esque flair and style to the NBA, although he struggled to score. Ball missed all five of his field goals to finish without a point in his first experience of NBA action.
By the end of the half, the Raptors had made it all the way back to head to the locker room with a 58-51 lead. The score, however, is not the main concern for the Raptors. With only three preseason games before the regular season commences on December 23rd, this is one of few chances for fringe rotation players to make their case for a consistent role. Nurse has discussed his desire to have a clearer bench hierarchy this season, as opposed to an eighth man by committee approach, as was the case last season.
In the first half, Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher, Malachi Flynn, and Terence Davis II all saw time. Davis II’s presence was certainly troubling for fans, as his offseason domestic violence arrest has left many wondering why he remains on the roster. Raptors play-by-play announcer Matt Devlin was clearly aware of the general feeling around Davis II and gave an extended update on the situation when he checked in, noting that the team’s decision-making process is ongoing.
By the second half, Norman Powell was the only regular rotation player who saw any time, as Nurse clearly wanted to give them a rest and get an extended look at the bench guys. Of the dozen bench players who saw action, Malachi Flynn and Matt Thomas were the clear standouts.
Flynn has drawn Fred VanVleet comparisons leading up to the game, as their similar play-styles and long college careers make for an obvious connection. His play in this game showed that it was not just a fun story. Like VanVleet, Flynn played canny, hard-nosed defense, hit shots from deep, and looked composed and confident with the ball. He finished with three made three-balls for nine points and four assists.
Matt Thomas, simply put, did Matt Thomas things. He nailed four of his seven threes, looking confident getting them off in a variety of ways. He also leveraged the absurd gravitational pull that his shooting creates to open up the floor for his teammates, notching five assists in doing so.
Both Flynn and Thomas made compelling cases for themselves, but Nick Nurse will certainly be patient in deciding who will win the coveted open rotation spots.
It was both exciting and intriguing to see this team back in action and to watch them integrate their new pieces. This game supplied plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season. The Raptors will stay in Charlotte to play the Hornets again on Monday, in the second of their three preseason games.