Preseason basketball is always a lesson in tempering excitement. Starters tear it up against second units, established NBA veterans go through the motions, and it’s hard to decipher if what you’re seeing on the court is a foreshadowing of things to come or just some off-season workouts extending from the local YMCA to pro arenas.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be excited about the Toronto Raptors. In fact, if there’s one thing we’re learning about this team through four preseason games — played to a 2-2 record after tonight’s 107-92 win over the Rockets — it’s that the Raptors’ embarrassment of depth will make the next week tougher than some may have thought. Cutting this roster down to 15 players will take a fair bit of politics, as we see it now, with surprises threatening more experienced players we may have considered front-runners for roster spots — such as Freddie Gillespie and Sam Dekker.
That kind of heartache does tend to hang over proceedings in the preseason. If you’re just in it for a bit of fun, though, the Raptors can provide it in spades.
Led by 17 points each from OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa, Toronto once again showed how an entire team of 6’9-ish dudes who defend their asses off can rattle the spirit of their opponent. With John Wall off in search of greener pastures and veterans like Danuel House Jr. and Eric Gordon sitting out, Houston was left with an entire roster of youngsters on Monday. Not one to play around, Nurse lined up his best defenders against the most promising of those in 2021 second overall pick Jalen Green and 2019 first round pick Kevin Porter Jr., who were guarded by Anunoby and Achiuwa early, respectively.
By removing their offence from the game in the first quarter, where the two Rockets combined to go 0-for-7 on some “me first” possessions, Toronto was able to get out to a lead and carry it through the rest of the game. A nine-point advantage after one quarter ballooned to 19 at the half, and a small threat from the Rockets never materialized into something real in the late stages. In the end, Toronto forced the Rockets into 28 turnovers, 9-for-30 shooting from three, and won the steals battle 18-7. This was a shellacking on the defensive end.
Impressing once again as the lead dog was Anunoby. OG has been the first option for the Raptors throughout the preseason and could continue that role until Pascal Siakam returns from shoulder surgery recovery. This has allowed him to showcase an entirely new repertoire of offensive moves, ones that were on display again on Monday. In the opening minutes, OG dropped a step back three — part of him scoring seven of Toronto’s first 13 points. Anunoby also mixed in some bully ball, as all but five of his points in the game came in the first 12 minutes.
The Raptors also got their first look at Gary Trent Jr. with the starters, as Nick Nurse announced before the game that Goran Dragic would rest tonight (followed by rest for Anunoby and Fred VanVleet in tomorrow’s preseason closer). Trent Jr. put together some good minutes to start the second, leading a bench unit with Scottie Barnes and dropping two set jumpers to push Toronto’s lead to 14. The off-season signee would end up with nine points on eight shots and three steals, a good sign for the Raps going forward.
Barnes was the de facto point guard in that second quarter lineup — which also included Svi Mykhailuk, Isaac Bonga, and Khem Birch in his preseason debut. The look accomplished defensive prowess for the Raptors, as the monstrous length continued to frustrate a Rockets team that found their way to the rim, but couldn’t finish in the traffic of limbs. Toronto was able to take a 19-point lead into halftime, which apparently was the perfect time for Drake to show up.
The official sign of good times, Drake joined the TSN broadcast booth for some light banter in the third quarter (nicknaming Justin “Champagnie Papi” at one point) — a pleasant backdrop to Precious Achiuwa exploding to truly put the game out of reach. Some baskets inside were sandwiched by a fading three, as Achiuwa would go for 7-for-11 overall from the field, tallying five rebounds, a steal and a block to go with his 17 points. What we’re seeing from the former Heat centre is pretty awesome, if not a bit outrageous, as the centre has almost certainly played himself into the starting centre job. This is no fault of the presumed starter Birch, who may end up a victim of missing the wrong games at the wrong time, but says everything about what Achiuwa is providing the Raptors — a real threat to push the break from the frontcourt and a shooting stroke that’s far more reliable than advertised.
In the fourth, the Raptors dug to the bottom of their preseason roster as we got an extended look at the players who will be battling for the last few spots on the team. Malachi Flynn finally got some pop in this unit after what’s been a frustrating preseason. Scoring 15 points to lead all bench players (along with Houston’s Aaron Brooks), Flynn made 3-for-5 from distance and finally showed some confidence shooting the ball. In many Raptors lineups, this is probably one of the few things he’ll have to do, as the team transitions to less guard-run sets. There’s no threat of Flynn not making the team, but tonight’s performance went a long way to shoring up his spot in the ten-man rotation.
The real question marks will be whether Freddie Gillespie and Sam Dekker have done enough on reputation to make the final roster. Gillespie put up a Sam Mitchell special in four minutes and Dekker went 0-for-4, as both have found themselves duking it out with Isaac Bonga (2 points in 11 minutes) and Ish Wainright (6 points in 15 minutes) for those last spots. Far be it for me to make judgements, but I will say it will be a tough call and probably depend on what the Raptors need out of the end of their bench in the short-term, especially with Siakam and Chris Boucher out with injuries.
The Raptors conclude their preseason tomorrow night in Washington, D.C.