Toronto Raptors basketball is back, and it’s like the first day of school. Watching the Raptors play while the sun rises outside my window is a rare treat, and the team didn’t disappoint with its performance in a 134-129 win over the Houston Rockets. There’s no reason to list caveats after every point, so let’s get some stuff out of the way early; preseason defense is surely less consistent than during the regular season, and even saying that is charitable. Outside of some occasional highlights, neither team was interested in playing team defense getting stops. So all numbers were inflated, and plenty of offensive performances were boosted by opponents’ disinterest. With that said, there were plenty of positives to enjoy.
Without the recently re-signed Kyle Lowry or Marc Gasol in the lineup, the Raptors’ offense did not miss a beat. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam took over for Toronto as the primary creators, and their increased time with the ball yielded the best looks Toronto could generate. The most often finisher in the first quarter was Serge Ibaka, whose dominant training camp was proven to be more than lip-service, at least to start the game. Ibaka scored from everywhere, hitting a midrange fadeaway to open the game, connecting on his first triple, and finding himself open for a dunk after a great Siakam assist. He cooled off after the first, but he finished with 18 points on only 10 shots. Expect Ibaka to be a key scorer for the Raptors this year, potentially even finishing second in points per behind Siakam.
Just as significant, however, was Toronto’s defense, against which the Houston Rockets scored almost at will. Russell Westbrook and James Harden were fantastic together. They proved, at least in this preseason contest, to be the dual-headed hydra that many pundits thought couldn’t be the case; in just the first few minutes, Westbrook collected four assists and Harden 14 points. Ibaka, for all his heroics on the offensive end, had trouble limiting Harden in the paint. Harden could not be slowed at all, at any point, and he finished with 34 points in only 27 minutes. It seemed like he could have hit 50 if he’d wanted.
The theme of the early game was consistency on the offensive end. Siakam and VanVleet were the primary ball-handlers early, but when Toronto threw Terence Davis, Chris Boucher, Pat McCaw, and other bench players onto the floor, the team continued to score well. Matt Thomas hit a triple in transition; Boucher scored as the roller out of the pick-and-roll. Missing Lowry and Gasol, Toronto still created positive looks with a surprisingly functional offense. The offense looks further along, at least in terms of implementation, if not talent, than it did at this point last year. Both teams hit 40 before the first quarter ended.
Terence Davis gave Toronto quality minutes as the backup point guard. His shooting off the dribble wasn’t quite there, but he initiated the offense well, and he passed the ball smoothly. Davis looks the part of a quality player, and the team should be comfortable using him as the fourth guard in the rotation. He plays with pace that belies his rookie status. He had increasingly huge moments throughout the game, and he finished with an impressive eight points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals. He’ll probably be a fan favourite before the season even begins (if he isn’t already).
The bench gave up a few live-ball turnovers in the second that allowed Houston to create a little separation. OG Anunoby and Pat PcCaw drove into thickets and had their passes picked off, and the Raptors fell behind by double digits, 62-52. Harden just kept coming, creating separation in the lane, drawing fouls, and nutmegging Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for having the gall to play defense. Toronto’s team defense was entirely lacking, and short of a few highlight possessions — Anunoby stripping Harden on the wing stands out — Houston created great looks on every possession. Defense comes with time, and it’s better to see Toronto’s offense create effective looks, even if it couldn’t keep pace with the Rockets; Houston shot 13-of-25 from deep in the first half, and they led a ridiculous 85-73. James Harden is that good at offense.
Toronto turned to a zone defense to start the second half, and it was actually quite effective. The team strung together three stops — despite giving up multiple offensive rebounds — as VanVleet connected on layups on the other end to cut the lead. Harden made a few errant lobs to Clint Capela in the lane, and the Raptors were right back in the game 85-80.
Houston turned on the jets from there, as Harden continued to destroy all would-be defenders. He scored from every conceivable angle, as Westbrook rammed the ball down Toronto’s throats in transition. Houston followed a script that will win them a boatload of games this year. That was until both teams threw the benches on the floor for the fourth quarter.
When Harden left the game, Toronto went on another run. The fourth quarter was the Terence Davis and Chris Boucher show. Davis rocketed into the center of attention. His ability to take contact and continue rising shows off his impressive blend of vertical and strength.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 8, 2019
Toronto came back and won the game, but all that really proved was that Toronto’s deep bench is far more talented than Houston’s. The Raptors have a ton of NBA talents on their camp roster, and there will be some difficult decisions to make with one or two guys. After Houston notched 44 points in the first quarter and 41 in the second, they only managed 44 points total in the second half. When Harden was in the game, however, Toronto was outclassed. Regardless, a win is nice, especially as the first preseason game of 2019-20, and there were plenty of individual surprises.
There were almost too many standout performances to list. I’ll still try. Pascal Siakam looked ready to be the man; he scored at will on the block or from the perimeter, and his release is far faster on his jumper. He canned a 30-foot bomb in the first quarter as the shot-clock expired, and Siakam showed none of the shooting hesitation that he occasionally displayed in the playoffs. His jumper has clearly improved (although he did airball one in the second quarter). He finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists, and it looked like Siakam was taking it easy out there for most of his 27 minutes.
VanVleet has made strides. Perhaps more comfortable in his role, now starting for the still-rehabbing Lowry, VanVleet played the part of a true point guard. He dribbled less, ran the offense faster, and attacked without hesitation in the pick-and-roll. He was decisive in hitting ahead in transition. His jumper was true. VanVleet opened the third quarter on a personal 7-0 run, and he, along with Siakam, was one of Toronto’s most stabilizing influences on offense.
Powell showed more of the same to which we have become accustomed. He was all over the map, here flashing brilliance, and there driving into too many defenders and turning it over. Most importantly, his jumpshot looks more reliable; he finished shooting 2-of-3 from deep, although he didn’t play in the second half.
Anunoby flashed a little bit of everything. He had some defensive highlights, and he made generally great decisions on the other end. His handle is improved, and he passed well, which is enough of an improvement for him to be an offensive positive. He got many of his minutes with the bench, and it’ll be interesting to see where Anunoby slots into the rotation. He far outplayed most of his competition for minutes in this one, and expect Anunoby to play 30 minutes or more per regular season game if that continues.
Among the deep bench guys, Oshae Brissett showed the most. He ran hard in transition, gave a lot on defense, and seems to have a more reliable jumper (at least from the free throw line) than advertised. I’ve been led to believe that he’ll earn a two-way contract with the Raptors 905, and he’ll be awesome to watch there. Malcolm Miller played excellently as well. His shooting stroke, as always, looks great, but he showed some juice off the bounce to go along with it. I don’t know what his future looks like with the franchise, but a good game from him is nothing but positive.
Finally, guards and wings on the Raptors roster take note: Terence Davis is coming for your minutes. This guy is going to play real minutes this season, and he may even start some games from time to time. Yes, his jumper needs work. But there’s a real NBA contributor in there, and the Raptors will do their best to find out what it looks like.
The first preseason game is in the books, and the Toronto Raptors have officially begun their title defense 2019-20. The win is nice, but it’s more important in the preseason to look for player development, individual skills, and team chemistry. So far on those fronts, things are even nicer. This season is going to be fun.