Plenty of stories swirl around this restarted NBA season. It’s impossible for there not to be, when you consider the state of the world we’re living in. The need, then, to make this about more than basketball has been there from the start.
You can tell this simply from the players’ interactions with media: the repeated assertion to talk about racial and social injustices, the obvious desire to be part of a national (and international) protest of the gross and unfair.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was the perfect mouthpiece for this just yesterday, centring his comments on the need for media to spread the players’ message.
We need unity— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 26, 2020
We need love
We need positivity pic.twitter.com/1mK0VZDffS
And although basketball is just a piece of this bigger picture the NBA family wants you to see, it is a piece all the same. And, if you can separate the need to embrace the message from seeing your favourite team play, then there is joy to be found in having basketball back.
Tonight’s Raptors game had a lot of joy to go around, as they ended up playing a surprisingly spirited scrimmage against the Blazers.
Yes, Serge Ibaka nearly got in a tussle. Carmelo Anthony was talking smack from the Blazers’ bench. At one point, the referees had to stop the game to tell both benches to cut out the excess chatter.
It was clear that these were two teams with newly healthy pieces ready to prove that they could move up in the NBA pecking order. In the end, the depth from Toronto won the day, as a 905-led lineup created separation in the third and helped seal a 110-104 victory.
The Raptors finish their scrimmage schedule on Tuesday as they take on Phoenix. They then open their seeding games against the Lakers on Saturday.
Though it was the play of Matt Thomas, Terence Davis, and Hollis-Jefferson who finished proceedings, we have to start with Kyle Lowry. Even in a game that meant very little to Toronto’s bottom line, Lowry was energized and at the centre of attention right from the start of this game. Finishing with 13 points, six rebounds, four assists, a steal, a block, and a +18 mark, Lowry proved to be a uniting force as Nick Nurse experimented with different lineups throughout.
Lowry’s big game was also timely as Fred VanVleet left the game in the second quarter, banging knees with a Portland player — an injury that was unconcerning to the Raptors’ coaching staff, according to post-game comments from Nick Nurse.
Nick Nurse says he doesn't think Fred VanVleet's knee-knock was too bad but no sense trying to play through it in a scrimmage.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) July 27, 2020
With VanVleet out and a bit of a dearth in ball handlers, Nurse again relied on inside out play centred on Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, and a handsome debutant by the name of Marc Gasol. Playing in his first action of the restart, Gasol dipped his toes in with ten minutes on the floor, but looked as fit and spry as expected — even attempting a diving dunk that spilled out because of a foul. His three points and four rebounds don’t tell the whole story of how he looked, as it’s apparent that Nurse will be taking it slow with his veteran big man.
Ibaka and Siakam, meanwhile, were excellent — combining for 37 points and 12 rebounds, both were able to create offence from inside and the three-point line, combining for six made shots from distance. Ibaka, especially, responded to a heated matchup with Jusuf Nurkic. The newly healthy Blazers centre was dynamic for his team, finishing with a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds. CJ McCollum led Portland with 21 points.
The two key runs for the Raptors in this game started in the first quarter, as a 15-4 spurt led by Lowry helped respond to a determined Portland offence. OG Anunoby also flashed a couple nice plays, including a couple dribble drives — one that finished as an and-one and the other setting up this swing sequence.
The handles... The ball movement... Poetry pic.twitter.com/0YF6ZKfz8p— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) July 26, 2020
Anunoby didn’t start the game, as the Raptors went with a three-big look, but would finish with a stuffed line of seven points, six rebounds, four assists, and two blocks.
The second run came towards the end of the third quarter, as Nurse got his starters out of the game and handed the keys to a 905-led lineup. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provided plenty of hustle stats, but two key threes from Terence Davis and four more from Matt Thomas — who finished with 16 points — gave Toronto a double-digit lead heading to the fourth quarter.
Though the Raptors would almost bobble the lead late with their end-of-benchers on the floor, a key bucket from Stanley Johnson and a ferocious dunk from Paul Watson proved to be daggers in Portland’s attempt to steal a win.
The game simply felt like re-acquainting with an old friend. The Raptors played like themselves from 1 through 16 on the roster, starting with the energized Kyle Lowry performance that we’ve become so accustomed to over the years. If this is how the team looks in games that don’t matter, it’s exciting to think about what the games will look like as we get a little further on in the restart.