Every year, the Raptors 905 host a game for school classes in partnership with Humber College, called the “Ultimate Field Trip”, which turns out to be one of the highest-attended games of the year. Held at Scotiabank Arena, the packed house brought the energy (and volume) right from tip, despite the early start time.
The atmosphere is loud and fun, cheering constantly, to the point where a number of players and the coach commented on the support they felt throughout the game. Gradey Dick was on assignment again, and proved to be a crowd favourite, garnering plenty of cheering with every possession despite his down-then-up performance. Some of the visiting Maine Celtics were familiar faces, with Tony Snell joining the starting lineup, as well as Kylor Kelley and DJ Steward, who have both had stints with teams in the Canadian Elite Basketball League this past summer.
Despite them being on the opposing team, it was nice to see a solid performance from Steward, who has contributed to a Canadian program, although strong defence from the 905 made his job harder. The game was a bit of a rollercoaster for the 905, but the big message from this performance would have to be momentum, because for the first time this season, their energy and effort translated into their first win of the season.
Javon Freeman-Liberty had a massive performance to carry the team with 31-9-6, although the way he led the team would be difficult to see in the box score. He initiated a fair amount of the offensive possessions and helped control the pace throughout the game as soon as he touched the floor until the moment he checked out.
Gradey Dick struggled in the first half, but ended the game with 21 points, mostly in the second half to contribute to the win. As injuries and foul-trouble created an uphill battle for them, he delivered when they needed the offensive boost.
Big bench performances from Kevin Obanor and Makur Maker, each with 21 points helped secure the victory, although the defensive energy and their combined 17 rebounds were far more integral, creating 2nd chance opportunities.
Maine started with the ball, and wasted no time with a three from the top of the key, but in similar fashion to the first few games of the season, the 905 fought early to stay in the game, even though they struggled initially. A few paint shots popped out and high effort from Jordan Walsh of the Celtics, with two big dunks created a bit of unbalance early on.
Javon Freeman-Liberty dug in and a combination of 3-point shots and a floater in the paint put the 905 on the board. He stayed aggressive, speeding up the pace of the game and found Ron Harper Jr. for an open 3-point shot, the first points scored by anyone other than JFL, and giving the 905 their first lead of the game. Obanor subbed into the game and contributed offensively too, with a couple of nice long range shots.
Despite strong play as the quarter continued, it became more and more apparent that Gradey was struggling. He didn’t seem to be aggressive enough early, and turned the ball over twice the first two possessions he had. He also was blocked at the rim twice, and had two personal fouls, but stayed in the game in an effort to get himself going. With Simmons joining the lineup, it was nice to see him and Makur Maker trying some screening action to get a shot in the paint. Hopefully with more time and experience with each other will allow them to continue to develop that connection.
After a timeout, the Celtics managed to go on a bit of a run, through paint touches and 2nd chance points resulting from hustle down low off of every missed shot. By the end of the quarter, the 905 were down by 8 points as their momentum seemed to continue to fade.
In the second frame, Obanor and Paige hit big shots, but then a number of injuries started to derail the 905. Javon was the first to go down on a take to the basket, but he was able to walk off the court and go back to the locker room. Ron Harper Jr. followed him shortly after, holding his ribs. In the meantime, Gradey started to put his head down and go to work offensively, pulling up the elbow and hitting nothing but lace. They continued to stay with Maine, despite a few tough calls (or lack thereof) and multiple turnovers on passes during possessions that felt like everyone was having trouble scoring.
Javon and Ron returned to the bench, which was encouraging, but within a few moments Mo got hit in the head and neck area and needed to be stretchered off the flow in a brace. Despite the obvious pensiveness due to the string of injuries, the players rallied and their mindset of doing it for Mo became obvious. Deliberate touches for Gradey who continued to get more comfortable on the floor contributed to the offence, and second chances by Obanor helped close the quarter with a bit of momentum, and they finished the quarter down by only 7. By the end of the half, the 905 were performing better from beyond the arc, but were outscored relentlessly in the paint that was the primary reason for the differential.
At the beginning of the third the energy still felt a little bit stagnant. The first few trips resulted in shots at the rim that trickled off. Despite his struggles in the first half, Gradey started the scoring for the 905 in the half by hitting a big pull-up 3, and then followed that up with a rim run that he was able to convert. With the gap in score narrowed, there was an obvious shift in energy. Freeman-Liberty was able to tie the game up on a wing 3-point shot. Another official review resulted in a free-throw for Maine, but despite several touches, Maine wasn’t able to score that gave way for the 905 to get out in transition where Simmons found Obanor for an open 3-ball. Gradey continued to be aggressive shooting, and even managed to get a long range shot on his way down to the floor following contact and a missed call.
NO BAD SHOT WHEN YOU'RE A SHOOTAAAAAA pic.twitter.com/dOYAuR2dg2— Raptors 905 (@Raptors905) December 1, 2023
Finally having a two-possession lead, it started to become fairly apparent that even the 905 started to believe they could win. The energy continued to climb, with players staying aggressive on the boards, engaging on defence, and finding each other for open shots. Halfway through the quarter, tensions started to build with frustrations toward the officiating and the aggression by Maine. After Gradey managed to shimmy and hit his third 3-pointer, frustrations boiled into a scrum on the floor, bringing trainers and refs to separate the group that had formed, and resulted in three separate technical fouls being assessed.
Although Gradey wasn’t able to convert the free-throw, he stayed aggressive and drew a foul on a three point shot that continued the momentum for the 905. As the frame expired, the 905 continued their impressive energy, going after every rebound and 50/50 ball to go up to a 12-point lead.
Maine was able to string together an 11-point run at the start of the fourth that slowly chipped away at their lead, until separated by only a single possession. The 905 didn’t give in or lower their energy, and slowly built the lead back up through a free-throw trip, a layup by Freeman-liberty off a steal, and Obanor hitting a nice 3-pointer. The Celtics continued to convert shots and stay aggressive, and as the quarter continued, both teams exchanged possessions. Obanor was particularly gritty in this frame, staying low on the boards and generating a lot of 2nd chance opportunities for his team that helped keep the 905 up as time ticked off the clock.
They continued to build up a lead again as Maker hit a 3-point shot from the corner on the assist from Kobi Simmons who managed to steal the ball and lay it in on the following possession. Unfortunately, he also got hit by the injury bug diving baseline, but was able to make it to the locker room on his own strength. With each shot that Maine made, the Raptors were able to match it, with a big corner 3 from Paige with under a minute left in the game. The 905 managed to maintain control, despite every effort by Maine. They dug in defensively, and willed themselves to the first win of the season.
BIG MAN MK FROM THE CORNER IN THE CLUTCH pic.twitter.com/py1yffvYMA— Raptors 905 (@Raptors905) December 1, 2023
As the injury bug continues, it will likely be a struggle to build consistency, but spirits were high as they walked off victorious. It’s also reassuring to see the continued development of the offence with the addition of Kobi Simmons. Now that there’s less turnovers from full court pressure, the opportunities to set up their offence have started to present themselves.
They’re starting to try and run organized plays with screening with the bigs, and the connections between Kobi, Javon, and Ron with cutters in the paint has opened up more scoring options. Hopefully this win will help them jump-start their energy and a momentum that can be carried into their next series against Delaware.