I’m not sure I was ready for how comfortable I’d feel on Monday night. The walk into Scotiabank Arena, the pre-game mingling, the booming pipes of Herbie Kuhn rattling your bones during the intros — all of it felt just the same as it did the last time the Raptors played in Toronto back in February 2020.
Surely there was a sense of familiarity for the players as well, as they got reacquainted with their home locker room, and the usual beats and rhythms of a real ass home game — that is, in the cases of the two active players who played in the last Toronto home game of The Before Times.
And even though the team looks almost completely different than the one that unknowingly left town for the last time 18 months ago, the Raptors’ on-court stylings in their 123-107 preseason win against Philly did their share of heavy lifting in the “making things feel normal” department as well.
Just about anything good the Raptors have conjured in the last four years has been a byproduct of maniacal defense and the bounty of offensive fruit it bears. After a brief, Tampa-bound hiatus from doing all the things that made the Raptors the Raptors, Toronto got back up to its usual long-armed shit on Monday night.
The length begins with Scottie Barnes, and I’m not sure it ever ends. In his preseason debut, the fourth-overall pick looked very much like a guy worth banking on for the long haul. Despite carrying the “project” distinction with him into his pro career, Barnes showed off all the many ways he’s sure to affect games on the road to assuming whatever his final form will be. He scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go along with nine rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks, and was one of the orchestrators of a 39-29 second quarter that displayed just how effective it can be to have many enormous dudes who can dribble on the floor at once.
Barnes still has work to do handle and decision making-wise. He coughed up five turnovers, and had a few would-be attacks cut short as he had to re-set after nearly losing control, but it speaks to how few nits there were to pick with Barnes’ performance that that’s what I’m offering up as a critique. It seems he’ll get plenty of opportunity to work on his ball-handling within Nick Nurse’s game plan, too. Despite naming him to his starting five, Nurse spoke to his desire to get Barnes involved as a ball-handler next to other reserves. As his teammate Fred VanVleet noted, that’s probably the spot in which he’ll be the most comfortable out of the gate.
“I think he looks a lot more comfortable with other bench guys out there with him,” said VanVleet. “That’s always a fine balance of trying to play with other top players... If you go out there with that energy and that passion for the game and you have kind of ability at all you’ll probably figure it out.”
Toronto runs at least eight-deep in guys equipped to grab-and-go off defensive rebounds. When four or five of those guys play at the same time — something that should be commonplace once Toronto’s at full health — it’s a lot for an opponent to reckon with.
Dalano Banton probably won’t be part of the main rotation whenever the Raptors are fully healthy, but he made a case to be on Monday. He too was a part of the marauding second quarter that blew the game open for good, and finished off with six points, five boards and four assists with a steal and two blocks, albeit with five turnovers of his own. His first hometown bucket was about as thrilling as you could have possibly hoped for.
It was announced by Nick Nurse before the game that Chris Boucher had surgery to fix a dislocated middle finger that will keep him sidelined for 3-4 weeks, meaning essentially all 48 minutes at the four will be up for grabs to begin the season. Banton’s branded as a point guard, but as we’ve come to learn about the Raptors brain trust in the last few months: they don’t give a damn about positions at this point. Banton could very well slide into some of those vacated minutes, with Barnes potentially in the driver’s seat to earn the opening day start at Pascal Siakam’s usual spot.
It’s worth pointing out that despite the good vibes and gleeful overreactions that will accompany the result, not everything was clean about the way the Raptors beat the Sixers.
“There wasn’t a lot of great half court execution out there tonight,” said Nurse after the game. And he’s right. Toronto’s best moments were borne out of sprinting down Philly’s throats off of steals and defensive rebounds — which, it must be said, you love to see. While Toronto harangued the Sixers into 18 turnovers, the Raptors gave the ball over to their opponents 23 times on the night.
Neither Fred VanVleet nor Malachi Flynn looked to be in mid-season floor general form, which you’d obviously expect to come around in time, particularly on VanVleet’s end. He finished the night with just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, though he did dish eight assists. Goran Dragic operated as an off-ball option more than an initiator in his 16 minutes.
Someone who did flash some ability to grease the wheels of the offense, at least in a secondary role, was Svi Mykhailiuk. He’s never going to run sets for the team once the regular season gets going, but he showcased some chops putting the ball on the deck and attacking against the shifting Sixers defense. All of his 13 points, three boards and five assists came in the first half, but the skillset he showcased coupled with that production might have been enough to solidify his spot on the team. Toronto is a team full of speculatively good shooters. Mykhailiuk just is one.
fred-trent-og-siakam-birch-flynn-dragic-barnes-boucher-precious-yuta-svi-banton is 13 spots that should probably be set in stone already— Sean Woodley (@woodleysean) October 5, 2021
Among other Raptors notables on Monday were Precious Achiuwa and OG Anunoby.
Achiuwa got the start in place of the absent Khem Birch, and settled down nicely into the flow of things after a bit of a jittery first stint. One of the biggest swing skills for the Raptors this season is Achiuwa’s fledging jumper. He’s super eager to take it from mid and long range, both in pull-up and catch-and-shoot situations. He hit his only three-point attempt on the night, and and saw results ranging from confident cash to air balls from inside the arc. What’s important is that he’s been emboldened to take those shots. Having a big man who can competently inject a touch of stretch into the mix would give the Raptors an element they’ve been missing since the days of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, and just might vault Achiuwa up Toronto’s hierarchy of long-term importance to boot. He’s raw, and jumpy, and still so young, but anyone who can move the way Achiuwa does at that size stands a good chance of figuring things out.
On that note, it seems Anunoby is ready to lean into a higher usage role on the heels of his strong finish last season. It’s only one game against a Sixers team that didn’t have its best defensive player in Joel Embiid (or its second best defender, who is not with the team at all), but the way Anunoby dealt with the extra bodies Philly routinely sent his way on Monday can’t not inspire some confidence that the breakout is nigh. His 21 points came unassumingly, and on a tidy 7-of-12 shooting from the floor (3-of-3 from deep). He got to the line four times and made them all, and turned it over just once. Nothing about his night felt either forced or lucky. Anunoby is one of the few guys still around who Raptors fans saw the last time the Raptors played in Toronto, but he returns as a transformed player on the precipice of another evolution.
He, along with Siakam, VanVleet and Barnes will be at the center of whatever this next version of the Raptors looks like. It’s different from what Raptors fans last got see up close and personal all those months ago. But with those pieces and more like them on hand, the pathway to Raptors success in the short and long term looks mighty similar to what Toronto’s been known for since 2018, except now with 50 percent more arms.