Toronto loses to Houston as Raptors’ starters play well

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In Toronto’s second game against the Houston Rockets in the Japan series, the Raptors lost 111-118 despite a strong showing from most of the rotation players. How did the team lose? Well, the Raptors played a fairly tight rotation for the first 30 minutes, which Toronto won 79-68. From there, Nick Nurse opted to give plenty of run to the team’s deep bench to see what would happen. Well, the team lost, but more importantly, the Raptors learned plenty about some of their new additions.

Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet were the two Raptors most involved early. They played two-man basketball on the offensive end — resulting in an alley-oop from VanVleet to Siakam for the Raptors’ first basket — and even passed the James Harden duty back and forth on the defensive end. Some Raptors’ misses, however, including a forced Norman Powell layup and an airballed Siakam 3, let the Rockets score some easy baskets on the run. That the Raptors also fouled Houston’s 3-point shooters allowed the Rockets to take an early lead, 18-8.

Siakam was Toronto’s initial defender against Harden, but he did not get the job done. It seemed like Toronto’s defensive strategy was to force Harden inside the arc and make him into a passer, but Harden too easily penetrated, and his lob passes and swing passes were almost uncovered. Harden easily blew past Siakam with his first step, and Siakam had trouble fighting back into the play to affect the outcome. That meant the Raptors’ back line didn’t have enough time to react to Harden’s advances. OG Anunoby had the same difficulty in his chances, however, so let’s not blame this entirely on Siakam. Harden is so dominant, with so many tricks in his offensive bag, that anything less than a fully locked-in team defense has no chance against him. And the team was far from engaged early, with late rotations, a lazy back end, and plenty of ball-watching.

Some Siakam wizardry, including a made triple and a steal leading to a dunk, allowed Toronto to fight back into the game; however, it was a losing battle as long as Harden was on the floor for the other side. When Marc Gasol joined the fray, it helped Toronto a lot on the offense end. He got the ball moving more, and the team looked completely different stylistically. His ability to connect other players as a screener and passer is unique on the Raptors, and the offense got going with Gasol doing the little things. The Raptors fought back to 30-23 at the end of the first quarter.

Terence Davis led the way in the second quarter, hitting a triple and forcing misses on the other end. His presence on the floor seems to increase the energy level of all around him. We’ll see if that’s just a preseason thing, when energy levels are lower across the board, or if it continues throughout the year. Pat McCaw played a long stretch across the end of the first quarter and start of the second, and he seemed to force his offense after not shooting in the first game. It wasn’t there for him, though, as he missed jumpers and layups alike. Among the bench guys who saw time early in the first half, Oshae Brissett also played well, playing great defense on Harden, although Brissett also clanked an uncontested dunk attempt. Despite playing well, he didn’t see much time in the game, which could indicate the Raptors already having made a decision on his future, or that the team just wanted to look at other guys this morning and will give Brissett more run in other preseason games.

With higher defensive intensity from bench guys, Toronto fought back into the game and even tied it at 43-43. When the Raptors forced Houston into the half-court game, Toronto gained  far more stops, even getting out in transition themselves. After a very shaky start to the game, Toronto’s defense settled into a great flow. Toronto’s depth really shines in preseason, when the rotation goes 15 deep or more. Harden took a step back on the offensive end, letting Russell Westbrook and others lead the way, and other Rockets started missing 3s off of his passes; Toronto roared ahead to a 63-55 lead at half. It was all impressive stuff, all the more so with the comeback coming with Harden on the floor, unlike the first preseason game against Houston.

Toronto’s starting unit improved to start the third quarter, as Powell and Siakam started to hit some triples. VanVleet continued a masterful performance, passing well without over-dribbling, pushing the ball in transition yet still giving it up early, and defending well within the team system. He collected a double-double only a few minutes into the third. The defense was the real turning point, as Toronto forced Harden inside the arc and picked off his swing passes, offering far more precision than in the first quarter. That Powell couldn’t miss from deep helped the offense. Powell’s handle was a little janky inside the arc, but when he shoots 5-of-7 from deep, that hardly matters. Nurse touted an improved jumper from Powell in the preseason, and that’s been proven to be the case thus far.

Toronto used a funky bench lineup for the second half of the third quarter, putting Gasol alongside a bunch of defense-first players and Matt Thomas. The lineup had trouble scoring, but they did a great job forcing misses from Houston. However, the offense was so bad that Houston slowly clawed its way back into the game. Thomas hit a floater out of the pick-and-roll with Gasol, but otherwise there were almost no productive shots to be had. Any lineup that needs the Thomas-Gasol two-man game to be its primary option is probably not going to score well. It’s preseason, though, and it’s not a bad thing to see how certain lineups look. Guys like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson were given opportunities to create, or take higher-usage offensive roles, but they didn’t show much with the chance. That’s valuable info; this game indicates that Hollis-Jefferson is best used alongside high-usage creators like Kyle Lowry or Siakam. Meanwhile, Houston tied the game at 90-90 heading into the fourth quarter.

To start the fourth, the Raptors used Dewan Hernandez and Terence Davis in place of Marc Gasol and Pat McCaw, and the lineup looked a little better. Davis offered more handling and playmaking, and that alone got the Raptors slightly better looks. Plus, the Raptors were going up against a weaker defensive lineup on the floor for Houston. Isaiah Taylor and Chris Boucher also joined Davis, Hernandez, and and Malcolm Miller midway through the fourth quarter, but the team continued to struggle for the early section of the fourth. Toronto wasn’t able to win the deep bench vs. deep bench minutes, as they did in the first game against Houston, but Hernandez especially acquitted himself well.

There were some memorable moments as Toronto’s deep bench closed the game. Davis was so locked into the developing play on the right side of the floor that he missed Malcolm Miller unguarded on the other wing, clapping zealously for the ball. Eventually, Davis saw him, and Miller nailed the shot. Hernandez had a great dish on the short roll to a cutting Chris Boucher; Hernandez clearly has skills at the center spot, and it’s obvious why the Raptors were so high on him. He has room to grow into an all-around game, even if he doesn’t contribute much at the NBA level this season

All in all, some problems, as can be expected in preseason, but there’s plenty about which to be excited. That’s normal for preseason; it’s not about the result, but instead about what you see. The Raptors saw plenty of good, with a long stretch of bad, but that was really by choice. Players were given lots of opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get, and most importantly, almost all the players in the rotation played well. This loss is nothing to fret. The defense rounded into slightly better form, VanVleet made some strides, Powell’s shot is looking good, and that’s really the most important stuff.

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