The Raptors went to Montreal for the last home game of the preseason on Wednesday night, and the fans showed up to bring a true home court advantage as they took on the Brooklyn Nets. With OG Anunoby rejoining the team this week and being available for the first time this preseason, this was the first look at a fully healthy Raptors team, and the rust showed through, but so did the talent and potential of this team.
The first glimpse at what might be the team’s starting lineup may have come in this game, when Nick Nurse went with a group of Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka to open the game, and the group showed flashes of what they could be, but gave up an early lead that they couldn’t quite claw back from as they struggled with early turnovers, Lowry in particular having four in the first frame, and some shotmaking from the young nets. Caris LeVert, DeAngelo Russell and Jarrett Allen led the way the for the visiting team as they jumped out to an 8-point lead after the first quarter, and for the critics of using Ibaka ahead of last year’s starting center Jonas Valanciunas, this quarter showed the merits of going in the other direction. Ibaka doesn’t bring Valanciunas’ presence in the screening game or on the boards, and the offense was sluggish in the halfcourt despite the talent the team fielded.
Towards the end of the first quarter and into the second, Valanciunas came in with the bench lineup, and they found some success, but again, it wasn’t the dominant bench mob of a year ago in the first half, and the Raptors came into halftime with a three-point deficit.
In the second half, Nurse changed the starting group, opting to go back to Valanciunas, and swap Anunoby for Pascal Siakam, and the players responded immediately with the Raptors reeling off a 27-6 run to take control of the game, keyed by dominant defense and scoring some easy transition buckets. Lowry ended up getting himself ejected during the second half, an ejection you could see coming with his chirping at the referees throughout the game, but the Raptors didn’t skip a beat as Anunoby showed the progress he’s made during the summer defensively, and he and Leonard found some chemistry defensively where they frustrated the Nets while also delivering a highlight reel play together late in the game.
For Leonard, his shot never quite came in this one, and it’s been the one thing that hasn’t fully returned from his MVP form of years past, but there were other very positive signs. Not just the defensive effort and he showed his ability to control rebounds as the game progressed, but his playmaking was in full form, finding lanes into the paint and kicking out to shooters for easy looks with regularity. He’s visibly enjoying himself out there with this Raptors team, and the shot should just be rust at this point, and should come as he gets further back into the swing of the NBA season.
To cap the night off, Chris Boucher, who grew up in Montreal, was able to deliver another nice moment for the crowd as he hit a pair of threes in the waning moments. Boucher has had a nice training camp and preseason, and should be a leading contender for the Raptors’ last two-way spot.
This was the team that was envisioned at the time of the trade this summer in this second half, an athletic team that could switch on defense and challenge offenses around the court while creating a lot of space offensively through their speed, talent, and shooting across the court. Nick Nurse’s vision appears to be translating in the preseason, because he got the players in rhythm in this game, and with just a week remaining until the regular season, it’ll be interesting to see if he can deliver this team on a nightly basis.
With a Thursday night matchup in New Orleans that won’t be broadcast on TV or radio as the only remaining preseason contest, this was the last look for most of us at this team prior to the opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Delon Wright left the game late with what’s being described as a thigh bruise, which will be something to keep an eye on. For Raptors fans though, the season can’t come soon enough after getting a glimpse of what this year’s team might be in Montreal.