This edition of the Raptors is the start of something, and nobody is yet sure what it is yet. First-year general manager Masai Ujiri likes to say he is evaluating, though a man that smart surely has a good idea of what he really has. The notion has been raised that this team has about 45 days to prove what it is, one way or the other; if it’s headed south it’s time to start the disassembling process, and if the Raptors have hung together and look like a playoff team, well, that probably means more patience. They could play the year out with this crew, sure. On opening night the Celtics came to town looking like a Cadillac that was left in the wrong place and stripped for parts, but at least the green-and-white paint job was untouched.
That was never a real threat on Wednesday, as the Raptors suffered through a rather dreadful start. The Celtics, in the midst of being broken up and sold for parts, were supposed to be the team looking out of sorts. The Raptors, returning their same starting five, were supposed to have much-desired “continuity.” However, it was the Raptors who looked over-anxious early on, stumbling to a five-point deficit in the first quarter. “I think we were a little rusty in the beginning,” said Rudy Gay, who led the Raptors with 19 points. Ultimately, the Celtics were too thin. After committing two early fouls, Johnson helped lead the Raptors back in the second quarter, with an impressive tip-in off of an errant alley-oop toss from Lowry a particular highlight.
To underscore the Raptors’ reliance on their starters, consider that they had 65 of Toronto’s points, despite DeRozan going 6-for-19 from the floor and Lowry going 2-for-8 and missing five free throws. The biggest shot of the game was probably the most unlikely, an Amir Johnson three-pointer to beat the shot clock about midway through the fourth quarter. “Amir is one of those guys who does so many things,””” said Casey. “That three was one thing but it’s his rebounds, his defensive intensity, getting his fingertips on the ball. All the things that are invisible almost to the naked eye, he gets them done and that three was another example where he’s finding a way to do something to help us win. Johnson did have only three rebounds but Toronto hammered the undersized Celtics 48-33 on the glass. Valanciunas had 11 rebounds, five on the offensive end, as the Raptors had 28 second-chance points. The Celtics got 25 points from Jeff Green but little else. Kamloops native Kelly Olynyk made a so-so NBA debut with four points and no rebounds in 16 minutes.
This game was indicative of the best and the worst of the Raptors. While it may not have been a pretty start to the season, there is still a lot of reason for optimism.
Point guard D.J. Augustin, who had been mostly silent through the pre-season, finally started to make some noise again. Starting the second quarter to give Kyle Lowry a rest, Augustin looked every bit the five-year veteran, particularly on a mid-quarter drive to the hoop when he kicked it out to a wide-open Steve Novak for an uncontested three. Augustin wound up with five points and a couple of assists, but did a nice job keeping the Raps in rhythm and holding serve as Casey is wont to say.
I guess it goes like this, if you except the fact that Boston is a terrible team and factor that into things you really are left to wonder how good Toronto actually is. I mean at several points in this game it looked like two very bad basketball teams. When you look ahead the Raptors schedule in November and December is far from easy. A lot of road games and if this game was played on the road you have to wonder if the result would have been the same. The Raptors will need to be much better if they hope to avoid Masai Ujiri from hitting the self-destruction button on this group.
This team wasn’t talented enough to not give 100 percent effort, to give in to the opposition during slumps. They had to play hard for 48 minutes, and show some grit if they wanted to compete. Thankfully, that’s exactly what we saw tonight from this crew tonight. After a miserable second quarter, where they mustered a mere 14.3 percent shooting from the field, erasing all the good feelings from a strong first quarter, the C’s could have given in. After falling behind by 15 points following a barrage of Raptors’ jumpers, they could have given in. That didn’t happen though.
If the wing play of Gay, DeRozan, and Terrence Ross is more efficient and Valanciunas takes a step forward on both ends of the floor, the playoffs are absolutely within reach. If the team battles injuries they could fall as low as 12th in the East and with Ujiri at the helm, there’s a chance that the end of season roster will bear little resemblance to the one Toronto trots out on opening night. Valanciunas’ development will be monitored closely. The rest of the roster and the head coach will be under constant evaluation from the new front office.
The Raptors outrebounded the Celtics 48-33, including a whopping 19-7 margin on the offensive glass. The way Stevens saw it, that was ”the key to the game” in his NBA head coaching debut. ”When they broke us down, they crushed us on the glass,” Stevens said. ”They shot 20 more field goals than us. It’s going to be hard to win a game when that happens.” Jonas Valanciunas had eight points and 11 rebounds and Tyler Hansbrough had 12 rebounds for the Raptors, who won for just the sixth time in 26 meetings with Boston.
“Organic is the word people use,” said Casey, when asked about homegrown superstars. “It would be great. I would love to see DeMar DeRozan rise and grow and become that superstar. He has that ability and it’s just a matter of time. That would be great for him to do that.” It would be great for DeRozan, but it’s also crucial for the Raptors. History shows that they’re likely not going to acquire a top tier star via free agency. They’ve never been close to a championship, and therefore haven’t been an attractive team for free agents hoping to win a title. And they play in Canada, which is still a disadvantage in the NBA. Toronto is a favourite stop for NBA players, but not as a permanent destination. However, if the Raptors can develop a homegrown superstar, perhaps that will change. That’s why this is such a crucial season for DeRozan and the Raptors.