As Wednesday night’s home opener ticked into the third quarter, the Raptors to that point looked much like the team we’ve seen over the past few years. Yes, the personnel has changed, and sure maybe they’re not as good as they were at their peak. But Toronto was still making their opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans, work for what they got — and their offense, while sometimes clunky, looked to be cooking just well enough to deliver a win.
But then those same Pelicans went on a tear. What seemed like a brief blip — a 10-0 run that had the Raptors on their heels — turned into a tidal wave going the other way. The Raptors were washed out for the next 8:40 of the third quarter, watching helplessly as the Pelicans drilled 3s and capitalized on mistakes to the tune of a 32-12 flipping of fortunes. By the end of the frame, the Raptors had been outscored 38-22. And there would be no spirited comeback this time. After winning seven straight home openers, Toronto would go on to lose this one 113-99 to New Orleans. Welcome to 2020-21. And welcome to Tampa.
I suppose that’s where we should start: the Raptors played this home opener in a sparsely attended arena in Tampa, Florida. (From my vantage point, the arena should be empty, but that’s neither hear nor there.) Technically, they still haven’t lost a game on Canadian soil for this season. It’s a slim thing to hold onto right now, but we do indeed have to start somewhere. Let’s run through what else the Raptors managed to do tonight.
Carrying over from his superlative one-off in the preseason, Kyle Lowry led the way for the Raptors with an 18-point, 10-assist night to go along with his 7-for-15 shooting line (and 4-of-9 from three). In his 38 minutes, Lowry almost managed to draw a charge and get testy with the refs more than once. He also coughed up six turnovers, however, which offset some of the goodwill he earned on the night. Of course, the Raptors had 20 turnovers on the evening, so it wasn’t like Lowry was the only one giving it away. The wider perspective here is even worse, though: the Pelicans somehow had even more turnovers (24), yet still won in an eventual walk.
That’s largely because, aside from Lowry’s steady three-point line, some early 3s from Pascal Siakam, and a couple of late-breakers from Matt Thomas, the Raptors could not buy a bucket from deep in the third. The team went 0-for-10 from three in that frame, while the Pelicans went for 7-of-8. Now, some of that was dumb chance — emerging star Brandon Ingram (24 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds on the evening) threw up a couple that looked like miracles to me — but kudos to New Orleans for generating their shots and actually hitting them. Meanwhile, if not for Siakam’s laborious 8-point effort in the third, things would have been even worse for Toronto.
In his efforts, Siakam led the Raptors in scoring with 20 points (in just seven more seconds of court time than Lowry). Pascal also looked to be finding his play-making skills, dishing six assists along the way. His 3-of-7 from three-point range was much-needed too, but like Lowry, he couldn’t find his shot when Toronto truly needed it. Siakam also had four turnovers — including one brutal one in the fourth — and while he got to the free throw line (unlike Lowry), Siakam only took two shots from the charity strip, making one of them. His new frontcourt mate Aron Baynes, meanwhile, tried his hand at busting through the Pelicans frontline, chipping in 11 points and nine rebounds. But his reads were often a second slow, his play-making absent, his newness to the team still very much apparent.
This underline once again what may turn into a real issue for the Raptors this year: a struggle to generate efficient offense. Yes, when the threes are going in it all looks so easy. But when they’re not, the Raptors often look stuck with no place else to turn. For example, Fred VanVleet was the only other Toronto starter who got to the line on the night (he also went 1-for-2), which suggests in ability to even touch the paint. If not for Norman Powell’s 7-of-8 evening from the line, the Raptors would have looked even less aggressive going to the rim. Of course, despite those efforts, Norm did more harm than good on the night, shooting a hapless 2-of-11 from the field. Likewise, while OG Anunoby’s defense was solid (e.g. Zion Williamson shot 7-of-9 from the field, but didn’t blow the game up by himself), the Raptors’ newly signed forward couldn’t quite buy a bucket either — especially from deep.
That was ultimately the story on the night. For every good thing a Raptor did, there was at least one thing they did poorly (or worse) at the same time. Maybe it’s just the first game of the season jitters, maybe it’s because the squad is away from home — while being told they are in fact at home. We can consider patience here too, of course. It’s clear coach Nick Nurse is still cycling through some of his bench and rotation options — ten players touched the court before garbage time (during which rookie Malachi Flynn eventually got his first official minute of pro time). Meanwhile, the offensive wizardry that was supposed come along with the hiring of assistant coach Chris Finch has yet to be realized. It takes time.
What we do know is the Raptors can still be a tough opponent — their defense was fairly reliable in the face of some amazing shotmaking from the Pels. They still have that core identity, one they’re going to have to rely on for this season to amount to anything. In that, we can hope this game, just one of a weird season, will stand as a wake-up call. Like it or not, the 2020-21 NBA season is happening now. Time to get with the program.