It is rare, the occasions on which things fall into place perfectly, when every if breaks right, when each of 11 deflected balls hits the right seam in the hardwood, and everything seems to come together. Despite the example often upheld by the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, perfect, aesthetically pleasing basketball is not a regularly achievable target, at least for most teams. Passing for the sake of passing can be fruitless, passing without conviction dangerous, and even passing as it should be dependent on capable shooting. In the preseason, in particular, playing to the 90th-percentile outcome stands as a daunting task, weighed down by unfamiliarity and change and unconventional rotations and roster pieces.
The Toronto Raptors were not perfect on Tuesday as they hosted the Detroit Pistons in their lone preseason game at the Air Canada Centre. But they were close, flirting with the idealized version of themselves that was imagined when president Masai Ujiri called for a culture reset following the end of last season. All necessary caveats will need to apply, given that it was an exhibition game against a mediocre opponent inexplicably on the second night of a back-to-back, and that it’s happened but once in four preseason contests (plus a quarter here and there), and still, it’s hard not to come away encouraged from a 116-94 victory laced with positives up and down the roster and the box score.
“Yeah, it definitely came together,” DeMar DeRozan said after the game. “It’s something that we’re gonna be able to look at, understand what we can get better at, put work, hard work, and how we can make things better. So that’s definitely a bonus. Like I said, we made shots, there’s still a lot of things we can clean up.”
They hit the ground running more or less out of the gate with Norman Powell starting in place of C.J. Miles, an ongoing experiment that brought spacing and poise to a youthful second unit and provided the starters with another aggressive attacker to exploit the attention paid to DeRozan and Kyle Lowry by the defense. The All-Stars tilted things in response to that same attention, looking for their teammates early and often – DeRozan would finish with eight assists working as the primary point guard for long stretches, and his willingness not only to respond to but to manipulate the defense was contagious. The Raptors would finish the first quarter with six assists despite Serge Ibaka, playing by far his best game of the preseason, being the only player to hit from outside.
It was that same ball movement that remained the story throughout, the Raptors tallying 30 assists on 41 made field goals and, if player tracking data were available for preseason games, surely a high number of secondary assists as well. Jonas Valanciunas played the different role in the offense he’s getting used to, stretching out and touching the ball a bit more, and he and DeRozan continued growing a pick-and-roll chemistry that hasn’t always been there in the past. Valanciunas scored 18 points with 11 rebounds in 22 minutes, his usual flaying of Andre Drummond, and his best play – a pass on the roll that setup a swing to DeRozan for a corner three – didn’t even show up in the box score. He continues to be maybe the team’s most impressive player in the preseason, and while he’s unlikely to suddenly become an All-Defense piece, his play at that end has been notably improved, too.
The starting lineup was solid up and down, with only Powell shooting poorly and making up for it with a handful of nice dump-offs for assists. Lineup data is not available for preseason games, but all five starters were at least a plus-9 in 22-to-28 minutes, the bulk of them spent together, and owned offensive ratings of no worse than 104 and defensive ratings no more forgiving than 100.5. To call that encouraging, given the relative inexperience of the four set pieces playing alongside each other and with the starters having played well with Miles in the preseason opener, too, would be an understatement. It’s easy to be encouraged by second- and third-units in the preseason. It’s the top groups that need to perform in a week and change when the rotation is culled.
Who exactly makes up that rotation remains a question. Nearly everyone who was given a chance Tuesday made a strong case to be included, though. Delon Wright continued a solid preseason despite some turnover hiccups and Fred VanVleet once again showed he can play with Wright and possibly help trim Lowry’s minutes this year, the two young point guards working like a tandem running back pairing in transition, alternating stylistically opposed forays to the rim and giving the Pistons’ second unit no space to breathe. Miles fit in perfectly there, too, hitting five threes, keeping the ball moving, and setting Wright up for a transition dunk with an unexpected behind-the-back dribble. Paradoxically, Miles may have made the best case for both starting and coming off the bench at times during camp, and a team-best plus-20 in 15 minutes is a strong (if flawed in isolation) affirmation of the fit here.
“I think it was a little easy for me because so many guys had the old stuff. I didn’t have (that), I had a blank slate,” Miles said of fitting into the new offense. “I was just kind of picking up everything. It was easier for me. When coach talked about it, 13 years in, there’s not too much you can throw at me that’s different or I haven’t seen, so it was easy to just play basketball and pick it up and do what I do, which is play, find space, shoot it and pass it. Pretty simple.”
The second unit did most of this, too, without Lowry or DeRozan, the one big change the Raptors will likely employ when the season begins. Head coach Dwane Casey has maintained something closer to full line changes over four games, declining to tip his hand as to whether the DeRozan-and-bench end of first- and third-quarters and Lowry-and-bench start to seconds and fourths from years past will continue.
Who the second unit did have was OG Anunoby, making his first official appearance. Considering it was his first game action against an opponent since tearing his ACL in January, it’s hard not to come away impressed. Anunoby didn’t look entirely comfortable just yet and admitted to feeling like he’s missing some of the spring in his game still, but he looked every bit as good as anyone could have hoped so soon. Detroit doesn’t exactly have the type of attacker Anunoby profiles to lock down, and so his defensive contributions were a little muted, and also maybe a bit scattered. There’s a lot more to see at that end still. Offensively, though, Anunoby looked like he should be fine in the role he’ll be asked to play, if he’s asked to play one – he missed all four of his 3-point attempts and got in some trouble for hesitating to take them, but he also attacked a corner closeout to draw a foul, flashed some nifty footwork on a drive-and-post, and made a small handful of eyebrow-raising passes on his way to three assists.
“The kid’s got a lot of rust but I really liked what I saw, his intensity, his toughness, his ability to switch, he did everything was asked him to do,” Casey said. “The young man has been hurt but, again he’s a top-10 pick. We got lucky wherever we were in the draft to get him, we look at him as a top 10 pick because he’s got that type of talent.”
“It was alright,” Anunoby added in his usual verbose manner.
Going further down the box score – a task for the Quick Reaction, not here – there are more and more positives. K.J. McDaniels got another shot and, while imperfect, had a highlight-reel play at both ends. Jakob Poeltl made the best case either he or Lucas Nogueira have made yet for the backup center position. Nogueira even hit a three late, more or less a perfect way to close out a fun game with so many positives (and oddities), picking up Valanciunas in the lone area he couldn’t deliver (he missed a pair of 3-point attempts). It goes on.
Again, it’s a preseason game against two-thirds of a middling opponent on a back-to-back. There’s necessary context here. The preseason, though, is about more than just the opportunity to extrapolate – the Raptors had talked up that making mistakes right now is good because it gives them things to work on and iron out, and you’d have to think that a successful night like this will resonate as an affirmation of where things can go if they stay the course and continuing buying in. It can lead to 30 assists without a massive spike in turnovers, to a reasonable 13-of-37 from outside where few shots came out of the flow of the offense, to an infectious energy and commitment to sharing and creating for others that’s only occasionally been something this roster’s done in the past.
“It’s always good when you put a product in and you see the results of that product,” Lowry said. “It’s always encouraging to see that what you are trying to do is working.”
Beating Detroit in a preseason game means little. Showing that the Raptors are actually capable of playing high-end basketball within the new paradigm could mean a great deal.