The Raptors are a sick team. The Raptors are a spiteful team.
The Raptors will eat your heart and celebrate afterwards in the weirdest ways possible.
The NBA has begun scrimmaging, and still the Toronto Raptors cannot seem to lose basketball games. They’ve played two terrific teams in the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers. (And yes, before you start, the returns of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic make Portland once again a terrific team.) It’s rewarding to see Toronto once again on the court, but even more rewarding is that Toronto remains so strong. The name of Toronto’s game this season — and through two restart scrimmage games — has been malleability.
In game one against the Houston Rockets, Toronto’s energetic bench led the charge. The plus-minus leaders were Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who were both terrific leaders on the defensive end. Terence Davis shot into the game like a cannon, and his offensive game has shown perhaps even more confidence two games into the restart than during the meat of his spectacular rookie year. With Pat McCaw out with an undisclosed and nagging injury, Davis could be a regular part of the rotation when the seeding games begin. Serge Ibaka, as he has been all season, was bedrock. He was Toronto most efficient scorer, and his offensive rebounding was critical. OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet were wonderful individual defenders against James Harden, proving yet again that Toronto is full of lockdown defenders who are more artists than brawlers.
As Toronto has done all year, they flipped the script from the first scrimmage to the next. Toronto’s starters won the day against Portland. Pascal Siakam hit pull-up triples, Kyle Lowry treated the game like a real one for an instant, and the game was over as soon as he started trying. Serge Ibaka led the team in scoring and instigating, and he continues to prove that his jumper this year is devastatingly real (as is his penchant for barking at opposing bigs).
According to Joe Vardon of the Athletic, when Nick Nurse told the starters they were done for the night against Portland, they booed the decision.
The defense has been stellar, and though Harden and CJ McCollum had big scoring nights, it was mostly because of difficult shot-making. Toronto’s offense has been crisper than expected in the return, and given a few made layups from Fred VanVleet or made triples from Norman Powell, the Raptors would have blown out their opponents in both games. VanVleet, by the way, banged his knee against Portland but said the following day that he was alright.
Yes, the Raptors are back. They are weird and wonderful, and they are going to annihilate most teams against whom they play. Siakam has at times toyed with his defender.
For the Raptors, the playoffs cannot come soon enough. Despite rust, the team is ready.
Though the team’s general strengths remain the same, various Raptors have improved in specific areas. This has been, after all, a long layoff, and players usually come to training camps with new skill-sets.
Davis is playing like a sparkplug guard who can dig in on the defensive end and score 10 straight the other way. But Anunoby is my choice for most improved from the beginning of the suspension to now. His handle and footwork, in particular, seem much cleaner.
It’s been said before, but if Anunoby’s offense can consistently be a net positive for the Raptors, he will always be available to stop opponents’ stars at the end of games. Any progress he makes on the offensive end keeps him on the floor, and he already became a statistically great finisher this year. Improving his ability to get to the rim is a big bonus for Toronto. He says he’s been working on his ball-handling every day since he got back in the gym with Patrick Mutombo.
Of course I’m overreacting to the little basketball that has already been played. But it’s exciting to have the Raptors back, and in a way I can’t help myself. It’s hard to learn too many big lessons from games in which starters play a maximum of 25 minutes. But the big truths of the Raptors remain the same. Toronto has one more scrimmage against the rejuvenated Phoenix Suns, and then it’s onto the real thing with the Los Angeles Lakers on August 1. The first few games don’t mean much, but there have been a few lessons and a whole lot of fun.