Kawhi Leonard debuts as Raptors thrash Blazers

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Blazers 104, Raptors 122 | Box Score | Quick ReactionReaction Podcast

Positive. Encouraging. Promising.

Three words that accurately described your Toronto Raptors on an entertaining Saturday night in Vancouver. Toronto opened their preseason against the Portland Trail Blazers with an 18-point victory in front of a raucous West coast crowd. Speaking of the basketball fanbase in Vancouver, the game was a sellout and simply couldn’t have been hosted at a better venue. Sidenote for those who missed it — the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner, Mark Tatum spoke briefly during the TV broadcast about the city of Vancouver as a potential NBA expansion location. I’m paraphrasing, however Tatum mentioned that despite league expansion not being currently on the table for the NBA, if the league were to ever consider expansion — Vancouver would undoubtedly be considered for expansion by the NBA.

There were a ton of storylines going into this game. To keep things short and sweet, one of the largest ones happened to be the debut of Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green, don’t you ever forget Danny Green) as a Toronto Raptor. Another happened to be the perceived chemistry issues with Leonard and Lowry. There was also was the strange absence of Anunoby (more on that later), Nurse’s debut as a head coach, the new lineup combinations and obviously, the return of Toronto’s promising Bench Mob.

To begin the game, Toronto started anything but the usual starters fans are used to. The lynchpin, Kyle Lowry was the obvious starter at point guard, while Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard occupied the ‘2’ and ‘3’ positions. This is where it got interesting. All offseason long, head coach Nick Nurse has been preaching his affinity for playing small-ball lineups. Before training camp even began, he hinted at the possibility of starting sophomore swingman OG Anunoby as a ‘4’ with Valanciunas at the center position. That left Serge Ibaka being the odd man out, but pundits and fans alike knew regardless of the starting five — Ibaka was meant for a large role in the rotation regardless. One of the main talking points since Ibaka was acquired from the Magic has been his inability to mesh correctly with Valanciunas at the two frontcourt positions. Nurse had a solution for that, which was to play Ibaka exclusively at the ‘5’, while still combining him with the starters in some rotations. With Anunoby’s absence in this game, Nurse had to be creative and instead opted to start CJ Miles at the PF position, but surprisingly also went with Ibaka as the starting center. In the early stages of the game, Nurse’s plan seemed to work as Ibaka drew Nurkic totally out of position (and his comfort zone) from the paint to the perimeter. Then, reality kicked in. As most people can agree, Ibaka’s position in today’s NBA is clearly at the five, however he lacks the strength and rebounding prowess to battle in the paint with true centers. This was evident when Nurkic began to realize he just so happened to be the largest human on the court and shortly after, began dominating the glass. Nurse knew immediately that this wasn’t sustainable for a long period of time, and called JV’s number off the bench. Valanciunas responded with an incredible effort, setting brick-wall screens for Lowry while beating Nurkic off the dribble on numerous occasions. At one point, JV unlocked his inner Kawhi — stripping Zach Collins and taking it coast-to-coast for a beautiful finger roll.

As the game went along, Nurse experimented with plenty of different lineups to counter the Blazers attempts at playing small-ball. It worked, as the patented “Lowry and bench” lineup worked wonders on the court. One thing’s for sure, Kyle Lowry hasn’t missed a beat. His on-court leadership was on display as he made certain each Raptors player knew exactly when and where they should be during their offensive sets.

The bench looked phenomenal all night long led by Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam. VanVleet did the usual — pushing the tempo, playmaking and hitting open shots while Siakam looked like a guard in a 6’9, 230lbs frame. Wright had some ups and downs, but really keyed in late with some huge defensive stops. The fluidity on display from the bench unit was nothing short of extraordinary. The chemistry really couldn’t be better from the Bench Mob.

From a night filled with positives, one downside was Danny Green’s performance. He shot 1 for 6 (1-5 from 3PT) as he clanked shot after shot, but did look respectable defensively. That’s the upside with DG, as he’s more than competent on both ends of the floor. He’s never really been a box-score player, and to be fair neither are the majority of the Raptors.

Back to Kawhi Leonard. Many fans’ eyes were glued to the screen to analyze just how easily he would fit beside the other starters. So far, so good. Lowry, in particular looked for Leonard early and often.

Leonard also created some of his own magic himself, as the NBA is beginning to come to terms with just how special a player Kawhi was after his hiatus from the league.

Above all, this was a great showing for the Toronto Raptors, and the fantastic fanbase in Vancouver deserved every bit of that win (even if it is preseason). In the next preseason bout, the Raptors have some travelling to do as they head to Salt Lake City, Utah for a clash with the Jazz. In what should be an exciting game, Toronto has their hands full as sophomore superstar Donovan Mitchell leads an impressive team coached by a 2017-2018 COY candidate in Quin Snyder.

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