raps season opener 2013

There was jubilation on behalf of the coaching staff, team, fans and everybody covering the team when the preseason finally ended, enabling the real games and the real basketball to start. Well, the pomp and circumstance of the pre-game introductions last night made it clear that we were finally going to see a real, regular season game. Whether or not everybody was ready to switch from playing preseason to real basketball on the other hand wasn’t so clear.

Let’s break it down:
The Offence

Everybody seemed just a little bit anxious and excited last night. Jonas in particular looked anxious. He looked much like he did at the beginning of last season: jumpy and a little too eager. There were a couple instances when Jonas was so anxious for the play to unfold that he actually popped out of his screen and started rolling heavy to the basket before he had actually picked the ball-handlers defender. Sadly, that’s about as close as the Raptors got to executing any kind of regular pick and roll into their offensive repertoire. It seems fair to chalk it up to nerves, excitement and early season unfamiliarity with each other still. While it was evident that we weren’t exactly watching the San Antonio offensive system at work, I think that there are some important things to take away from this game.

The Raptors came out trying to get Valanciunas some low post work early. I’m all for establishing the Valanciunas post-up game, but it seemed like trying to force the ball in to him on the block ended up in as many turnovers as it did quality shots. Valanciunas got repeatedly shoved off of his spot before he could get the ball. Working the ball low and getting Valanciunas going was clearly a big part of the 1st quarter game-plan, but it really never got going. I’m the biggest supporter out there of an inside-out style that gets Jonas lots of touches down low, but he needs to prove that he deserves them. Having said that, it’s likely that games against the terrible tanking teams might be approached as opportunities to develop skills rather than execute them.

The offence was heavily reliant on Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan isolation jump shots when the starting five were running a half court offence. The ball struggled to find the open man because, for the most part, there wasn’t one. There was a lot of standing still and watching. The offence could start to run stagnant quickly if it dissolves in to four guys watching one wing player settle for mid range shots.
Before this turns in to an angry piece about shot selection though, it’s worth mentioning that Kyle Lowry’s finger injury seems like it’s going to be a real issue in the immediate future. Lowry’s off shooting night was attributed to the splint on his finger, which is fair, but that isn’t what stood out to me. What stood out to me was how small of a role Lowry played in facilitating the offence and handling the ball. I don’t think he could do those things well with the finger, and I suspect that that is why DeMar and Rudy had the ball run through/stop with them so much. So I’m going to belay a full analysis and freak out of the 2013-2014 offence until the team is ready to actually run it.
While the starting unit looked apprehensive and nervous, the bench guys came out firing on all cylinders in the first half. Hansbrough was allowed to rebound anything he wanted, with this exceptionally young Celtics team apparently not rebounding any better than the exceptionally old Celtics team of recent seasons past did. What really stood out for the bench team in contrast to the offence though was that everyone seemed to have a clear role and understood spacing in that 2nd unit as compared to the 1st. DJ Augustin shot horribly, but he handled the ball and passed well. Landry Fields looked great. I feel like the off-season stories about how Landry Fields was badly hampered by injuries last season are legitimate. He looks confident, quick and athletic. If his play keeps up like this, I may even let him use the injury excuse to explain those terrible PlayStation Vita commercials.
The Defence:

Real life effs were visibly given on defence! Turns out that Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay can actually be really good at defence when they want to. It created a lot of easy transition buckets that this offence could benefit enormously from while it tries to find its rhythm and identity. The energy and effort level from players getting back, creating turnovers and challenging shots looked like a team that wants to win and take themselves seriously. This isn’t to say that there weren’t a bevy of defensive breakdowns, lack of rim protection and weak-side help against drives and a panic-button bad transition defence. But let’s continue to remember that this was the first game of the season against a team that I don’t think the Raptors took as seriously as they might a contender or even playoff level opponent. We’ll start freaking out when these breakdowns happen frequently enough to become patterns. For now, I’m focusing on the energy and potential that the team showed last night, and looking forward the the positive directions that could very well go in.

The Opponent:

The last time I saw the Celtics, back in the off-season, they were sad:

sad boston celtics

They still are. They are a team that plays without much pride or intensity, and that’s probably because they know that they’re tanking. They might not all have accepted it yet, but they all know it. That’s rough.

For what it’s worth, Jeff Green looked great. He doesn’t seem to have the personality that wants to take over games, but he does have the talent to. He scored transition lay-ups at will on the Raptors and put up a quietly impressive 25-5-2-1-1 stat line.
Avery Bradley on the other hand looked sad that he didn’t get to be in the sad Celtics photo from the summer. Avery Bradley is a player whose game is dependent on him going balls-to-the-wall hounding ball handlers and making guys run. I think that he is going to struggle to be nearly as effective while playing for a team that is more than happy to lose.
Random Thoughts:

-Amir Johnson continues to do awesome Amir Johnson things. Hustle plays, great help defense, offensive rebound put backs and thunderous fast break slams. It appears that Amir is adding two new weapons to his arsenal this season, the alley-oops-bank-shot and the spot-up three pointer. While the former was an isolated instance of awesomeness to be celebrated, the latter begs discussion. I joked last week that Amir Johnson was trolling NBA analytics nerds like myself with his sudden burst of 3 point shot selections. It was the pre-season, and it really didn’t matter, which is why I assumed he was taking them. But with 3 more attempts from 3 last night, a pattern is emerging. I can’t imagine that Amir would attempt multiple 3’s unless he had the green light to do so from the coaching staff. After all, this is a coaching staff that cares about nothing if not shrewd shot selection. The fact that Amir has never been a selfish or ostentatious offensive player rules out the Bynum corollary here. These Amir 3-pointers make me think of three things:
1) For anyone who has been to the ACC to watch a Raps game in the last few years and spent halftime compounding the cramping in your legs instead of braving the bedlam of the urinal and $12 beer lines, you’ll have noticed that Amir is one of a small group of Raptors who always return to the court a few minutes before anyone else to work on their jumpers.
2) Amir has an oddly slow release on his shot, but he’s knocked down the mid-range jumper with efficiency when it’s been given to him.
3) I suspect that Amir hanging around the perimeter and putting up the odd 3 is by design. The idea is probably to pull his man away from the paint to open up space on the block for Jonas to post up without getting double teams, or to free up driving space for the wings. And if teams decide to leave him wide open, he’s probably going to keep putting up 3-pointers.

4) Amir was 1 for 3 from 3, meaning that he now has at least one more NBA 3-pointer than any of us. Let he who has more career NBA 3-pointers cast the first stone.

-Despite strong and extended minutes from Terrence Ross in the pre-season and summer league, it looks like his role coming off the bench is going to be limited to start the season. He didn’t see the court until the first half was nearly over.

-It looks like it’s probably going to be much less difficult to cheer for Tyler Hansbrough than I thought. It’s been a while since I had a reliable “you hate him if he’s on the other team, but love and irrationally defend him if he’s on your team” guy on a team I cared about for a while now. This could be fun.
-Jon Bon Jovi was sitting court-side with Tim Leiweke at last night’s game, a fact that was brought up with conspicuous frequency on the broadcast. I have a feeling this kind of random celebrity moment is going to become a recurring part of Matt Devlin’s announcing life this winter. The presence of famous people seems to be playing a really big role in whatever it is MLSE is trying to do.

When it comes down to it, nobody ever really even remembers the first time anyways. Both sides are nervous and awkward, and it shows.  Neither side ends the night really feeling very good about themselves or what just happened, but that’s ok. They’re going to get more confident, better practiced and up to performance as time goes on. The first time is all about getting it out of the way.
The NBA and the Raptors are back! Let us rejoice and be glad in it.