The Youth Movement and Veteran Guile – Winning on Opening Night

The Toronto Raptors have opened up the season at 1-0 behind the (great) strength of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. Thinking about Norman Powell’s “This team is built by workers.” quote, and watching the un-drafted VanVleet and 27th overall Siakam pour in a combined 68 points is a special type of satisfactory. This team was built by workers. Guys like DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry proliferated that ethic within the Raptors locker room, and it breathes it’s life in the lungs of all who play there now; especially with Siakam and VanVleet, who look poised to guide the Raptors into the new era.

That isn’t to say that this is the new era, not yet. This team will still follow Lowry’s guiding light. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will play important roles in this season. However (comma) last night belonged to the youth movement of Siakam, VanVleet and OG Anunoby.

After a terrific and fun ring ceremony, the Raptors came out with an intensity that didn’t match the Pelicans. That meant they surrendered a lot of rebounds early, couldn’t keep up with the Pelicans in transition, and were careless with the ball as they piled up turnovers. Gasol was punished early on and made way for an energetic and impactful Ibaka. Siakam and VanVleet paced the offense early, and Anunoby added in a bit of shot-making.

The Pelicans were showcasing their recently acquired young guns – Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart – and they performed really well. Ball provided his sticky on-ball defense and overall floor game. Ingram attacked well early, often times getting into the teeth of the Raptors defense. The Raptors adjusted in the second half, though, and relegated Ingram to the outside (1-5 in the second half) where he was far less effective. Hart had a massive breakthrough in the second half, catching fire from downtown and flying in for four offensive boards. He provided a lot of punch to a Pelicans offense that was sputtering at times down the stretch.

The Lowry-Jrue Holiday matchup wasn’t all that it seemed to be as both veteran guards had trouble hitting shots and deferred early on to their younger teammates to create. Lowry had the benefit of leaning on the duo of Siakam and VanVleet. Siakam was everywhere in this one; he pushed relentlessly in transition, attacked the bucket against the length of Derrick Favors and Ingram – with a playoff whistle, I might add – and cleaned the glass better than any other player out there.

VanVleet’s Shot Chart

VanVleet’s performance was larger than life last night. It was particularly meaningful for the Raptors offense because of his ability to attack the Pelicans at the rim. VanVleet is a career 53-percent shooter at the rim, which has significantly limited his ability to set the table for the Raptors offense, especially in pick n’ roll sets. Last night his pacing was top notch, out-foxing the help defense, and using his body to protect the ball as he laid it off of the glass. We’ve seen terrific 3-point shooting games from VanVleet before (5-7 in this one), but last night was his best work attacking downhill by a kilometre as he shot 7-for-11 at the rim.

‘FVV’s’ surging offense helped guide the Raptors into the lead after the half-time deficit, but a cameraman’s foot in the wrong place turned his ankle and sent him back to the locker room. In the time when VanVleet was off the court the Raptors offense sputtered, and the Pelicans kept hitting threes at a high clip. The game became close, then the Pelicans took over, despite Siakam pouring in 14 points in the period. Lowry forced the issue and got to the line, but the shot-making came from VanVleet once again. Down by 3 with a minute and a half to go, Nick Nurse drew up a gorgeous ‘ATO’, and VanVleet made good on it:

After Siakam fouled out, the Raptors looked like they were in trouble to close out the game, but the will of Lowry got him to the line and tied the game up at 117. Anunoby put the clamps on Holiday on the other end for a full possession and the Raptors had eight seconds left to win themselves a ball game. The decision to flatten out the offense for a Powell 30-footer was pretty perplexing, especially when you consider how creative Nurse’s play was for VanVleet’s three. The game went to overtime.

Overtime was a story of regression to the mean in a short amount of time. After the Pelicans had spent a great deal of the night hitting the three at a better clip than one would expect, they couldn’t cash in, in overtime. The Raptors on the other hand, had been grinding their way to the line for most of the night and shaking their fists at threes that wouldn’t drop. In overtime the free throws came, and so too, did the home-run ball. The Raptors finally pieced together a frame where they out-shot the Pelicans, and closed the chapter on their first ring ceremony as victors.

Louis Zatzman has a piece re: the Championship Rings coming out later today, so stay tuned for that.

Have a blessed day.

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