The Toronto Raptors hadn’t played basketball for 145 days until Saturday night.
As they left the court in Orlando, having defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 107-92, it felt as if Canada’s team never left.
Saturday’s victory demonstrated what made the Raptors a dangerous team before the hiatus; physical defense, fast transition offense with championship pedigree.
The same blueprint will enable this team’s destiny in the NBA’s restart.
“Great team. No ifs, ands, or buts,” LeBron said of Toronto to reporters after the game. “Well-coached, championship DNA. The media may not give them as much credit because Kawhi (Leonard) is gone, but players know what type of team they are.”
Before the pause, the Raptors ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency (104.9) and fourth in net rating (6.5). No matter the defense; zone, a half-court trap, triangle-and-two, the Raptors limited some of the best scorers in the league.
The same story happened on Saturday, with the Raptors limiting the Lakers to 35.4 percent shooting from the field and forcing 17 turnovers. Despite LeBron James leading the Lakers in scoring with 20 points, the Raptor defense guarded him all night.
Cue OG Anunoby:
OG on LeBron – who you got? pic.twitter.com/L0LgM9hjvf
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) August 2, 2020
Yes, Anunoby became a “LeBron Stopper” on defense, guarding him closely one-on-one. Not only did the Raptor forward showcase his defensive prowess but he was a force on the offensive end.
The hiatus has allowed Anunoby to improve his jump shot. No better sequence than in the opening quarter, when Pascal Siakam drove into the lane, kicked it out to Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, who swung it to Anunoby in the corner for a three.
Making three-pointers and driving to the basket make Anunoby a player to watch come playoff time.
Saturday’s Raptors win was evidence (once again) that Kyle Lowry is the leader of this team. As he was pre-hiatus, Lowry facilitated the pick-and-roll that is the cornerstone of the Raptors offense. He took charges, which he leads all NBA players.
Most impressive of all, was his ability to attack on offense, hitting critical shots while leading all players in rebounds with 14. Lowry’s 33 point, 14 rebound double-double is only the second time in his career that he posted 30+ points and 10+ rebounds in a game.
Reminder: Lowry is 34 years old.
“He was vintage Kyle tonight,” Nurse said to reporters postgame.
While the Raptors on-court play resembles the early season, it may be the only facet that remains the same in that pre-pandemic world.
COVID-19 still rages on almost five months since the NBA suspended its season. Players restarted the season to use their platform in continuing the fight against anti-black racism and police brutality.
With both the Raptors and the Lakers kneeling during both the American and Canadian national anthems, it is a reminder that racial injustice and inequality exist in both countries.
And basketball should not distract from these important issues.
Players for both Raptors and Lakers kneel during American and Canadian anthems. LeBron sings O Canada.
— Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) August 2, 2020
“I tip my hat off to the Lakers and their organization for staying down there with us during the Canadian anthem,” Lowry said to reporters. “To be down there for four straight minutes …to think about another human being kneeling on another human being’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, that’s a bad thought to have, an unbelievable messed up thing that that man did to an innocent Black man.
“Those are the things that went through my head. I tip my hat to our organization, to the Lakers organization, for allowing us to protest peacefully and continue to push our message.”
As the Raptors continue their title defense, a lot looks different. No fans in the stands. Tons of health and safety protocols.
What remains the same is the championship DNA that binds this group together.
Making the Raptors a dangerous opponent come playoff time.