Tune in at any given moment of a random basketball game, and it can be fun to try to surmise the entire story from the snapshot. It’s often inaccurate, of course, but it’s fun nonetheless. Had someone tuned in as C.J. Miles drove the lane on Saturday night, one of three things would have been made immediately clear: Either Miles was having an incredible night that lifted a consciousless shooter’s confidence even higher, he had been possessed by Rajon Rondo, or the game was in-hand enough to attempt to shake off a cold night with a ludicrous behind-the-back ball-fake before attempting a layup.
The play was mostly inconsequential, a fun highlight for two points to break a scoreless evening in the midst of a 128-94 drubbing. It would seem emblematic, though, of the start the Toronto Raptors find themselves off to after moving to 2-0 with a thorough dismantling of a Philadelphia 76ers team down star center Joel Embiid. Miles, a newcomer meshing with his new team in an instant, leading a second unit that’s been the talk of the team in the opening week, buoyed by the confidence bred from a sizable lead, dazzling in transition because things are good right now.
Things are good right now. It was mostly expected, if only with cautious optimism. Blessed with a fair amount of continuity and a pair of home games against lower-end Eastern Conference opponents, the Raptors have been afforded the opportunity to ramp up their play to begin the year. With a new offensive philosophy taking time to mesh with a dominant, if unifaceted, existing paradigm, the cushion has been valuable, the Raptors playing freely and largely without adversity as they find their new selves. “And I’ve gotten better at getting better at being me,” as they may attest if they were an emo group I saw Friday night, which they are not.
Instead, they are simply happy to be undefeated through a pair of games, as they expected were expected to be internally and from outside.
“Very important,” Kyle Lowry said after the game. “I think that’s one thing, we didn’t say it out loud but I think internally we all knew that we needed to get those two games at home to get off to a good start then go take care of business on the road.”
It was Lowry and the starters who set the tone in this one, handling their own business a little better than in the opener, when the second unit carried the bulk of the weight. DeMar DeRozan, in particular, was spectacular, dominating mismatches against 76ers defenders and parading to the free-throw line early on while shooting perfectly from the floor. He had 15 points in the opening quarter and 23 in the first half, decidedly not in facilitator mode up against constant advantages that didn’t suggest he pass. It was perhaps odd, a game after he was even a little hesitant to shoot instead of distribute, to see him play a quintessential DeRozan game – while under the weather with the flu – and it was exceptionally effective. He finished with 30 points on just 12 field-goal attempts and 17 used possessions, dishing “just” three assists and posting a team-high plus-26 in 27 minutes.
This is part of the adjustment period for the Raptors right now, figuring out when to lean heavily on ball movement and when to dance with the one that brought them, so to speak. The stars need to get others involved to increase confidence and further stress opposing defenses with on-the-fly decisions, but change for the sake of change itself, on a game-to-game basis, is not necessary. The principles are clear, and the early parts of the season will be about determining when the stars should shift between roles, what nights their scoring is necessary, and to what degree. Lowry and DeRozan combined for 47 points with ludicrous efficiency, Serge Ibaka chipped in 21 in the best two-way game he’s played since camp opened, and that starting quartet (with Norman Powell) posted a plus-33.6 net rating in 17 minutes.
“The starters don’t forget how to play basketball,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “There’s a million different ways to skin a cat. We’ve got to be the best Toronto Raptors team we can be. Offensively, there’s a niche we have to find, keep moving the ball, and most of all what I liked was our defensive intensity.”
It was a great step forward for that group, though it was somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory. Jonas Valanciunas had a solid first half but sprained his left ankle late in the second quarter and was undergoing an MRI Saturday night. That potential absence looms large with a tough stretch ahead, but even in that negative there was a 7-foot, bushy-haired silver lining, as Lucas Nogueira started the second half and turned in 16 terrific minutes, scoring 10 points with nine rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. It’s a credit to the mercurial Brazilian that he kept himself ready and stepped in to provide a major energetic boost and his usual conspicuous lob threat.
“Lucas on any other team would be your backup,” Casey said. “We don’t want to lose anybody but it’s good to have the luxury – and it is a luxury – to have three quality centres the way we have with Lucas and Jakob.”
That another young player stepped up already is hardly surprising, and has largely been the story early on. For as good as the starters were, the bench was solid again, though the five-man all-bench group was outscored slightly. Jakob Poeltl had one of his best offensive games as a pro, feasting off of dump-offs thanks to his smart positioning after screens and a few nice dishes from rookie OG Anunoby and former college teammate Delon Wright.
Wright may be a lede that’s getting buried here, as the third-year point guard was magnificent once again. He scored 14 points in 31 minutes, grabbing five rebounds, blocking two shots, and posting a plus-23 mark. The assist total looks a little low in part because Fred VanVleet handled the ball a bit more – Wright went 1-of-6 as a spot-up 3-point shooter, finally seeing an attempt drop late – and because the Raptors as a team shot just 13-of-44 from outside. It should not confuse the impact Wright had and the mastery with which he’s leading the second unit, particularly when a starter hangs around to help ease the scoring burden. Every move Wright makes is done with a purpose – a head fake to feint a defender into leaning one way or being a beat slow to close out to a different shooter, a hesitation dribble to confuse that he’s rejecting a screen, a shoulder tilt to protect and burst through when a defender is a step out of Wright’s jazzy beat.
“That second unit is unbelievable, man,” Lowry said. “Those young kids are unbelievable and we need them to do this every night.”
The Raptors may not need it from them every night. Not when they’re winning 34-point games that give Bruno Caboclo six minutes of run to work through some mistakes and actually make a few positive plays by the final buzzer. Things get much tougher now with a six-game trip against elite competition, though, and since the Raptors are not by any means a finished product on the offensive end at this point, the production from their depth is remarkably convenient. It’s helped them take care of business in decisive fashion on what’s amounted to a runway home-stand.
“We had two young teams in here and we basically did what we were supposed to do,” Casey said.
You could have guessed just flipping the game on briefly in the fourth quarter.