Toronto Raptors fans, we are back! The long-awaited time since a slightly disappointing playoff exit to the Philadelphia 76ers is behind us! The preseason is officially over! Thank God that we have real NBA basketball to watch, and boy am I excited.
This is game one! An opportunity for every fan to claim an undefeated season after a win, and brush it off by telling themselves it doesn’t matter and there is 81 more to go after a loss.
As I was previewing the season, and getting familiar with all the teams and players, I realized there are almost no easy games for anybody this season. There are honestly over 20 teams who could be a legitimate threat to the others when it comes to a single season game, and making the playoffs.
That holds true tonight as the Raptors take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. These are two teams who many expect will be neck and neck all season, jockeying for the battle of the final playoff spot, and the dreaded play-in game.
Toronto looks to make their jump off of internal improvement, and slight upgrades to their depth. While Cleveland, as much as internal improvement is also expected, made a big splash this off season by acquiring three-time all star, Donovan Mitchell.
Where to watch:
TSN, 7:30PM EST
Toronto — Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam
Cleveland — Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Caris Levert, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen
Toronto — Khem Birch (knee — doubtful), Chris Boucher (hamstring — doubtful), Otto Porter Jr. (hamstring — out),
Cleveland — Ricky Rubio (ACL — out), Dylan Windler (ankle — out), Mamadi Diakite (not with team — out)
rookie sophomore battle
The two finished in a tight race for last season’s Rookie of the Year award. To make it even more contentious, a lot of people believe Barnes edged Mobley out because he played five more games.
Whatever makes you sleep at night, Cavs fans!
It is time to throw last season into the record books, because a new chapter of the Barnes—Mobley battle begins, and these two could not be on more closely matched teams to battle the beginnings of their NBA career on.
While the two of them bring a huge impact, their play styles are fairly different. Barnes is more of a switchy defender, who will guard one-through-five, and play free safety looming for steals. Mobley on the other hand has the ability to guard on the perimeter, but thrives more as a help defender/shot blocker.
Offensively Barnes is given a lot of freedom to initiate, but will also likely run as a screen-and-short-roll man. Mobley on the other hand is used as a tertiary creator, but moreso attacks off advantages, or is hit while diving/rolling to the net.
Both players have the ability to shoot threes, even though neither of them shot the ball from deep overly well last season (Mobley 25%, Barnes 30%). I would look for this skill to be the reason that one of these two, or both of them take a big leap this season. If both of them can stretch their game out beyond the arc this year, these two sophomores could be seeing all star selections sooner than initially expected.
Defending the backcourt
With the new acquisition of Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland enters this season with an all star duo at the guard position. And let me tell you, these two did not earn those honours through their defensive abilities. Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell can and will carve you up offensively.
Don’t fear though, Raptors fans! This is where Toronto’s strength comes into play. Not necessarily guarding the perimeter specifically, but just defense as a whole. I would expect Toronto to matchup Fred VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby as the duo’s primary defenders; as much as a primary defender doesn’t mean near as much in today’s NBA with all the switching and off-ball action.
Anunoby and VanVleet, even though never being selected to the teams, are All-Defense caliber players and them, and everyone else guarding these guards will play a massive role if Toronto can pull tonight’s game out.
As much as Cleveland has other threats offensively, these two are the straw that stirs the drink. I would expect the two of them to initiate the large majority of the offense while they are on the floor, and that means Toronto needs to limit blow-by’s, hedge, switch, or trap hard on screens, and don’t allow large gaps defensively for them to attack off a kick-out.
Between the defensive game planning of Nick Nurse and his staff, and the plethora of quality defenders on this roster, Toronto should have the ability to slow this high-powered offense down.
MVP, Pascal Siakam
Here we go Pascal, this is why I kept you as my keeper in fantasy over Karl Anthony-Towns; I believe in you! We have heard nothing short of high praise for Siakam from his teammates this offseason. Some have placed his name in the MVP conversation, and Siakam himself said he strives to be one of the best players in the league, (which is way less of a story than people make it out to be).
Siakam enters this season on the heels of his second All-NBA selection, and a second half of the year where he went absolutely bonkers, including a fairly solid playoff outing.
In order to improve off a season which saw Siakam average 22.8 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game and 5.3 assists per game, which were almost all career highs (he averaged 22.9 points per game in 2019-20), he is going to have to take a couple more steps as a shooter.
We saw Siakam shoot well from three, whether that’s off catch and shoot, or even off the dribble sometimes, but I’m not even talking about his deep-range ability. I’m saying that Siakam needs to channel his inner Kawhi Leonard and start dominating the mid-range game.
If Siakam can work on a pull-up, or step back off a drive from 10-16 feet, that is what will make him an elite player. He is already nearly unstoppable in the post, or on the drive, and he has shown the ability to stretch the floor. The mid-range shot is what forces defenders to stay glued to you the entire drive, and what will essentially make him unstoppable at his size and speed.
I’m not claiming MVP status, but if Siakam can even make the jump to All-NBA second team, the Raptors are in good place, and that starts tonight!