After a championship in 2019 and the bubble in 2020, a short off-season is starting to feel pretty normal for the Toronto Raptors. Even through that, however, it feels a little strange to say another season is upon us tonight.
The Raptors will open their 2020-21 campaign against the New Orleans Pelicans tonight with plenty of strangeness afoot. For one, their home opener won’t be anywhere close to home, as we get our first regular season look at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. (For those who haven’t yet, The Athletic’s Blake Murphy did an excellent deep dive into the team’s transition to their new digs.)
For another, two familiar faces are gone from Toronto — Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka — and in their stead are more questions than answers, with real basketball standing as an opportunity to sort things out in our minds. Aron Baynes will be the starting centre for the Raptors against New Orleans, and he gets what might be the most appropriate matchup for a burly, bearded centre as he takes on a likeminded player in Steven Adams.
We already know plenty of the faces who will take the court tonight, though. Pascal Siakam has a chance to silence the doubters after a poor showing in Orlando this summer. Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby have both been showered with money; they’re sure to be part of the team’s core for years to come. Also, of course, there’s Kyle Lowry. Will this be the last season we see the franchise’s greatest player wear the white, red, and black? Regardless of that heartbreaking thought, a 72-game regular season’s worth of Lowry grift and cantankerousness will be a nice salve after the horror show that was 2020.
New faces or old, it’s time to start getting to know the 2020-21 Raptors. Here’s the game details for tonight, followed by three things to watch for in their matchup versus the Pelicans.
Where to Watch
TSN, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
New Orleans — Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Steven Adams
Toronto — Patrick McCaw (out - knee), Norman Powell (questionable - health and safety protocols)
New Orleans — Wenyen Gabriel (out - knee/quad)
Zion and Pascal
Despite being national darlings to climb into a bubble playoff spot, New Orleans tripped out of the gate in Orlando and never recovered. Instead, it was the Blazers and Grizzlies who earned their way to the Western Conference play-in game; there’s no doubt, though, that a number of off-season shakeups were done by David Griffin with the post-season in mind.
The major hope out of the Pelicans isn’t focused on Stan Van Gundy, Eric Bledsoe, or Steven Adams, though. It’s that they can get a full, healthy season out of Zion Williamson. The Duke product appeared in just 24 games in his rookie season, and never appeared to be in full game shape as the team had to monitor his minutes and hold him out of key moments.
Tonight, a matchup between Williamson and Pascal Siakam will be a marquee #ProveEm moment for both players. While Siakam was a bit quiet in the preseason, he will feel some early pressure to show that his game has evolved from the stagnation that plagued his bubble appearance. For Williamson, the questions are known — how long can he play with peak force? Will he be able to keep up the torrid pace of his preseason, where he averaged 28.5 points and 10.0 rebounds during a perfect 2-0 exhibition?
Watching these two go at it will be fun, and will no doubt come with some too-early prognostication from both fanbases.
New Look New Orleans
Count me among the NBA fans that are a bit salty we won’t have Stan Van’s analysis on TNT this season. After a honeymoon phase as Turner’s best colour analyst and NBA Twitter’s best democratic socialist, Van Gundy is once again behind a pro bench with the Pelicans.
We’ve yet to see what kind of mark that will leave on this Pelicans team, but expect to see some of the spacing and downhill action that were a hallmark of the early 2010’s Dwight Howard Magic. Van Gundy has the personnel to do so — Zion Williamson is an incredible interior threat, while 2019-20 Most Improved Player Brandon Ingram can do a bit of everything on the perimeter.
Watch for the fit of the new acquisitions too. Eric Bledsoe, who has had a miserable time meeting expectations in the post-season, provides more of that driving ability. JJ Redick is still here to pop one from outside. Lonzo Ball has a bit of a chip on his shoulder after failing to get a rookie extension. How this all comes together for the Pelicans, who will be in really tough to make the playoffs in the West, will be intriguing out of the gate — especially against a Raptors defence that has been traditionally excellent under Nick Nurse.
Welcome to Tampa
The Raptors should enjoy their time in Tampa while they have it, because much of their first month will be spent on the road. Six of the next nine games after tonight will be on the road, including early dates with the Spurs and Sixers before the year is up.
Tonight will come with some intrigue for that reason alone. How do the Raptors play with a limited number of fans in the stands? Will they perform as well without that energy to siphon? The strangeness of COVID-19 basketball will permeate much of the first half of the season, but I’m curious to see exactly how it mutes what’s usually a raucous night for Raptors fans — the home opener, where optimism can really take hold.