If nothing else, it was fun to see the playful — and not-so-playful — jawing back and forth. The Raptors and Rockets competed in a 40-minute scrimmage on Friday night in the Disney World bubble, and despite all the bizarre trappings that phrase implies, there the players were, giving each other shit. It was hard not to feel entertained after witnessing such a thing.
The not-so-playful trash talk is now particularly funny in retrospect. During the second quarter of last night’s scrimmage, it was belatedly brought to our attention by broadcaster Matt Devlin that Norman Powell and Russell Westbrook had been assigned double technicals. This, after it was clear Russ and Fred VanVleet had been bantering too. There was probably more chatter, unseen and unheard within the new ersatz arena, but we got the message anyway. Despite the game not actually counting, despite its unfamiliar and sparse framing, and despite just about everything else going on in the world right now: Raptors basketball is indeed back.
Now, to the game itself. After some seesawing play from both teams, the Raptors ended up grabbing the 94-83 win against the Rockets, but really that’s a minor point. What fans want to know is: how did Toronto’s squad look after 138 days off? In this, I can say there were some good signs — and sure, some things to note moving forward. The Raptors had their full roster available and coach Nick Nurse did what he does best by rolling it out piece by piece to see what’s what. (Notable absences on the night: Marc Gasol and Patrick McCaw.)
For their parts, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam bounced into this one with their form largely intact. Siakam scored his first bucket on an impressive herky-jerky side-to-side drive and continued on for 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, his moves at the basket still very much there. Siakam couldn’t find his range (he went 0-for-3 from deep) but the motor was already whirring. Likewise, Lowry didn’t seem all there just yet either, but his composure and desire pushed the Raptors early on. He’d finish with 11 points — including a buzzer-beating banking 3 at the end of the half — and some of the other usual Lowry stats: a 2-for-1 opportunity, a continuation call given and then rescinded, a charge drawn on James Harden, and at least one bout of voracious explanation to a referee. It should also be said: after an 11-0 run from Houston in the second quarter, it was Lowry goosing the Raps back into it.
Meanwhile, their big man partner Serge Ibaka appeared more than ready, flashing once again some new passing skills and a soft touch around the rim. The Rockets play small and don’t quite have the personnel to battle in the post — and that was clear as Ibaka repeatedly took advantage. What’s more, as the game went on Ibaka’s range actually expanded. He missed his first three, but hit his next two to finish with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Of course, when Ibaka wasn’t in the game, he was also living it up on the sidelines — please note his celebration on one of Matt Thomas’ two 3s (spoiler: Ibaka rode the videoboard like it was a horse).
To round out the starting lineup, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby both showed what they still bring to the Raptors — and what more they need to do. For VanVleet, it’s about finding his legs and his burst. VanVleet had six points on the night from a pair of threes, and while he had seven assists he didn’t put a particularly memorable stamp on the game. At the same time, Anunoby chipped in with five points but still looked to be re-discovering his confidence from deep. It’s the first scrimmage after a weird lay-off so it’s not entirely surprising to see some rust somewhere.
That was the case for the Raptors’ bench too. Norman Powell, for example, came on strong but then started trying to do too much (he had little choice given some of the lineups he in). Fortunately, Powell also took control of the game late, asserting his will for 12 points (though he went 1-of-7 from three). His wing counterpart Terence Davis filled in some gaps too, playing with the same aggression and confidence he’s shown all season. Davis had an eye-popping 15 points on the night, going 4-of-9 from the field (though a cool 1-of-6 from three). Once again, even when the shots didn’t fall, Davis seemed ready for the next play.
We could say the same thing about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson too — and, sure, Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher too. Even Stanley Johnson got into the act, moving the ball fast enough to get Norm an open corner three late in the fourth, which he made. (The less said about Stanley’s turnovers the better.) Their play together and apart wasn’t perfect, but it really was fun just to see all these guys getting some run, and playing together.
In all, this is where the Raptors’ team discipline and character can eventually win out against many teams. Sure, it’s a scrimmage and none of this really matters, but to see the whole squad coming together still means something. After runs went for and against both teams, it was the Rockets who faded down the stretch minus their stars, while Toronto just kept rolling on and on. The only thing left to add here is a rather basic idea that has become something of a governing ethos for the Raptors: some things never change, even when everything else does.