Post-Game

VanVleet’s late and-1 lifts Raptors to victory in Summer League opener

Raptors 96, Pelicans 93 | Box Score

If there was any concern that a lack of perennial MVP candidate Norman Powell or third-year stalwarts Delon Wright and Bruno Caboclo would keep the 2017 Las Vegas Summer League Toronto Raptors from being exciting, Fred VanVleet and company put that to rest in the team’s tournament opener on Friday. A fun back-and-forth battle with some solid NBA potential on either side came down to the wire, with VanVleet’s late-game heroics helping the Raptors get off to yet another strong start in the desert with a 96-93 victory at Cox Pavillion.

The Raptors came out looking spry and geeked up for some real game action, with their three NBA players almost immediately looking like they’ll have big tournaments. VanVleet has been entrusted with running an unfamiliar group because of his poise and steadiness, and he quickly racked up assists spreading the ball to multiple teammates and then hit a pull-up three to get his own. Jakob Poeltl finished on a number of dives, something he struggled with here last year, and there was a clear edict to get him more involved than he’s accustomed (he was the league’s least passed-to player last year). Even some of the Raptors’ pet sets got the ball to the dive man, which was a nice wrinkle with a more motion-heavy offense. (Don’t get too excited – their summer teams always run a lot of motion offense.) Pascal Siakam, meanwhile, basically repeated his encouraging 15-minute snapshot from last summer, out-running opposing bigs and making a few heady plays within the offense.

There were bumps. Siakam passed up a couple of good threes (he’d hit one in the second), a bit of a disappointment given how well that shot is reportedly coming along. And the team, looking to move the ball against scattered defenses, racked up turnovers quickly. At the defensive end, the execution would occasionally break down, a completely understandable result early on here, although it’s worth noting that last year’s squad was ridiculous defensively out of the gate.

“It’s my job to make their jobs easier,” VanVleet explained of his role with the new guys. “I just try to impose that throughout the game. Obviously, me Jakob and Pascal have a great rhythm together, but it’s just about getting the other guys in that rhythm. It’ll take a little bit of time. I think you saw early on with the turnovers that we had, a little bit of off-rhythm stuff. ”

As the bench began filtering in, the Raptors’ new reserves couldn’t quite lock in, and it took a Troy Caupain buzzer-beater to wrap the first quarter in a draw. A group led by Caupain and Kennedy Meeks but with none of the NBA Raptors built a bit of a deficit to start the second quarter. That let Quinn Cook get hot and led to Jordan Crawford becoming his personal hype man from the bench, and Cheick Diallo remained a problem anywhere from 18 feet and in (there was a nice sequence where Poeltl contested a Keith Benson post-up well despite getting driven into the paint a bit, but Siakam was whistled for a foul on Diallo, leading Siakam to smile and plead to the ref that “you can’t do that;” Siakam came right back and blocked a James Young attempt at the rim). The Raptors couldn’t close the gap by the break, entering halftime down seven even after an Alfonzo McKinnie put-back in the closing seconds.

Unable to cut into the lead in the third despite a quick burst from Canadian Mychal Mulder, the Raptors tried to ratchet up the pressure on defense, getting into the ball from three-quarters. That seemed to disrupt the Pelicans’ flow, and VanVleet pushing the ball back the other way got Poeltl and Siakam a couple of nice looks from just outrunning their counterparts (and in Poeltl’s case, converting on more tough finishes). A lead as big as 11 was erased entirely at one point, and the Raptors entered the fourth with a manageable two-point hill to climb.

Things began to unravel again thanks to some defensive miscues and a few untimely turnovers sandwiched around a great lob pass from Troy Caupain to Will Sheehey for a soft-touch layup. When Jama Mahlalela went back to VanVleet and Siakam at the midway mark of the fourth (Poeltl missed the last few minutes in order to get three stitches above his eye), they were once again down six. VanVleet rebounded from a tough mid-range miss with a driving layup after splitting the defense, Siakam followed with a feathery jumper when he looked dead having picked up his dribble high on the block, and VanVleet opted to bookend it with another basket at the rim. A Siakam post-up against Toupane (on the heels of Siakam containing Toupane on the perimeter for a missed three) gave the Raptors a late lead.

“Pascal being a leader on the court, and finding ways for him to do that,” Mahlalela said when asked what the team is looking for from the former No. 27 pick this week. “And you saw that today, commanding the ball and doing something with it. That’s a real growth for him as a mature basketball player.”

The sides traded buckets down the stretch from there, every Siakam step-through or Meeks finish answered with a Cook step-back or heady Diallo play. Out of a timeout and down four, Siakam drove the lane and drew an extra defender, opening up a dump-off for Meeks, and then the Pelicans completely lost Siakam leaking out after a stop, allowing him to tie things back up at the stripe. The Raptors forced a turnover at midcourt immediately after and a tipped rebound made its way to VanVleet, who eventually drove at Cook for a go-ahead and-one too late for New Orleans to respond.

“We were thinking stop, and they came down and threw the ball away, so we had it,” VanVleet said. “I think Alfonzo got a wide-open three, didn’t go. I battled for the rebound and threw it out to Troy. I thought he was gonna shoot it, so I screamed at him. At that point I was just trying to figure out the best way to get the ball back, so instead of waiting I just went and got it. Wanted to get into a ball-screen, ended up going away from it, and was able to get a shot up on the rim and it went down.

“And finally got a call.”

The Raptors love getting their players experience in tight games, whatever the stakes, and in that sense this win seemed to count extra.

“You know, close games are the best thing you can do, because you learn so much from those situations,” Mahlalela said. “Our guys really handled the end-of-game situation well Their composure and their execution was great, and they can learn from that. Close games, you can really watch the film and study things.”

It wasn’t a perfect start, but with only two days of practice, it’s about as good as they could have reasonably hoped. Their NBA guys looked like NBA guys at Summer League, their one tryout contract was the next best player on the floor for them, and it’s easy to see them playing a little better with a full game from Poeltl and some extra time to iron out the turnovers.

Notes

  • Yeah, we’re copping my Raptors 905 recap format here with half-gamer, half-notes. I figure it lends itself better to games like these where people might not be as concerned about the game-flow as the actual player performances.
    • As always, yes, all Summer League caveats apply. The context of the tournament needs to be recognized. That doesn’t mean information can’t be pulled from it – positive signs are allowed to breed optimism, and negatives can help inform the rest of a player’s offseason (personally, I find negatives to be a bit more concerning than positives are encouraging here, but that varies based on the player and skill in question).
  • Most of the recap focusing on three Raptors is fitting now, looking at the boxscore. Siakam was dominant with 24 points on 14 shots, VanVleet had an easy 18 points, nine assists, and plus-12 rating, and Poeltl shot 6-of-8 for a 12-and-10 double-double in just 23 minutes. Meeks had the biggest impact of anyone not on the NBA roster with 15 points and nine rebounds off the bench, finding a quick chemistry with VanVleet. Will Sheehey had a bit of a rough outing, his first since dislocating his elbow before the 905 playoff run. Alfonzo McKinnie and Troy Caupain were really solid in their roles and have a little more to show still.
  • Old friend Axel Toupane was across the court in this one but had a bit of a rough outing, shooting 2-of-9. His first step is ridiculous, and if he continues to improve as a playmaker on those drives, like he showed some here, that’s a nice complementary skillset for a defense-first player. He has a non-guaranteed deal with the Pelicans for this season and figures to get a good look in training camp.
    • Also suiting up for the Pelicans was Cheick Diallo, who looked really good here against a quality Raptors frontcourt. Diallo finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, showing improved range and making a nice dump-off while rumbling to the rim.
  • OG Anunoby (knee) and Malcolm Miller (ankle) are out for the tournament. Anunoby signed autographs for fans after the game.
    • Among your Raptors in attendance in Vegas: Almost the entire front office, Lucas Nogueira (on the bench for this one), Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Bruno Caboclo, and DeMar DeRozan. There may be more, too, but those are the ones I could spot.
  • The Raptors play again tomorrow, tipping off against the Minnesota Timberwolves at 6:30 ET.

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