As much as the players want to say “it’s just another game,” it was a real test — a test of the work they put in during the summer, and a test of the bet on roster continuity. And this time, unlike a year before, they passed with flying colors.
“It didn’t feel anything like last year just around here in general [today],” Nick Nurse said after the Raptors 108-105 win at Scotiabank Arena. “…They were ready. I thought just in general, just their body language and their communication they were having, they were really locked in in the morning prep and as well tonight… there was some really good hard play by us on the floor and diving to tip [loose] balls and things like that. And that, again, still takes you a long way in this league.”
All five starters scored at least 15 points, just like they all averaged last season, with Siakam leading the way with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 4 steals, leading bench groups with limited spacing to solid results by getting to his spots and finishing, including a frenzie in the third quarter when he kept his team in the game by scoring 6 straight points and setting up a Koloko putback for 2 more.
But all 10 guys who played (save for Juancho Hernangomez) chipped in in meaningful ways and with timely moments: O.G. Anunoby had 18-7-5 with 2 steals and 2 blocks, putting in a defensive masterclass against Donovan Mitchell down the stretch of the game; Gary Trent Jr. finished with 19 points on 4-8 from downtown; Fred VanVleet had 15 points, 5 assists and 4 steals; while Scottie Barnes finished with a game-high +20, chipping in 15 points and 11 rebounds while getting better as the game went along.
Even Dalano Banton, Thad Young and Precious Achiuwa had big moments off the bench, particularly on the defensive end, while rookie Christian Koloko was a standout in his Raptors debut, using his 7-foot-1 frame and 7-foot-5 wingspan to matchup with the Cavs’ supersized frontcourt and make things tough for them at the rim.
“I think it was a great experience for him. I don’t think he’s probably seen a Mobley and Jarrett Allen at the same time before in his playing career. And he played really well,” Nurse said of Koloko. “The best thing I thought he did, he got on the glass but he also got switched off onto some of their perimeter guys and he made them, kept them in front, and challenged with his length and that was a pretty good game for him for a rookie first time out.”
But more than any individual’s play was the maturity that the Raptors displayed and the way they executed down the stretch, especially in comparison to the way they opened last season, which was with mostly the exact same team, albeit now with a season of added experience. After all, Nurse said ahead of the season that “I’m expecting us to be hard to play against… I think we gotta be a team that outplays another team or every team that we’re playing. And that’s what I expect to see.” It was another way of saying that mediocre play wouldn’t be tolerated.
Against the Cavaliers, the Raptors were everywhere defensively — for better or worse, as there are still things to work on when it comes to limiting penetration — forcing 16 turnovers and allowing only 6 offensive rebounds while grabbing 12 themselves (despite being significantly undersized). All night they attacked the paint aggressively, getting to the free-throw line 32 times compared to just 23 for the Cavs. They finished the night outscoring the Cavs 20-7 in fast break points and 18-4 in second-chance points. A real blue-collar night at the office.
“They tend to migrate everybody down there,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Cleveland’s defensive schemes. “We were taking it maybe a half a dribble too deep and then being swarmed.”
A player as gifted as Donovan Mitchell can render those players less effective with his explosiveness, but the Raptors don’t have that type of guard, either. Toronto, with all its skilled, lengthy defenders, never had an answer for him. Even with Garland exiting in the first half, it looked like Mitchell was headed for a “that’s why they brought me here” game every time he got switched on to anybody but Anunoby. The Raptors did not want to throw their full boat of assets at the Jazz for the guard in the offseason, and the Cavs did. For one night, you could see why. If Garland hadn’t left the game with an eye injury early on, he very well could have been the story.
“There are a lot of schemes and coverages that we’re flipping in and out of,” Nurse said of his team’s defence on Mitchell. “And I don’t really know how he does that. Like, I’ve never split a pick-and-roll in my life.”
Instead, the Raptors largely have to rely on those wings to make the offence go; it will not always be effective, and it will rarely be fluid. Barnes will have some marvellous offensive nights this season, but he is not ready for as much of the ball as he can handle. With his ability to pass, Barnes should not get lost in one-on-one matchups as often as he does, and the result against the Cavs was far too many contested jumpers without much ball movement.
Yet Barnes made the proper adjustments as the game went on, which is why you want to allow him to find his way through the rougher and, yes, uglier moments.
“He’s bringing it up the floor, and it’s not really a fast break, but it’s still transition,” Nurse said. “Those are times where I’d rather see him try to hit the paint and take the one-on-one matchup as deep as he can. So, a couple times I thought he just kind of stopped and settled — he made a couple of them. It’s kind of a little bit of quirkiness to his game, right, that he comes down and just looks around and shoots it, right? But he did fire a couple (passes) out late.”
“One thing about the emotions and the spirit and the energy is it comes and it goes, and it’s up and it’s down, and he did a good job of settling down there in the fourth when it was time to win the game,” VanVleet said. “He made some big plays for us. We love the intensity he plays with and his spirit, as long as he doesn’t get carried away.”
Indeed, the intensity and spirit of Barnes and his long-and-strong teammates will mean everything to this team.
The Raptors will likely need all they can get from Siakam as they struggled to score most of the game from their half-court offence — an issue for much of last season. According to cleaningtheglass.com, their halfcourt offence generated just 0.857 points per play, which is in the 39th per centile league-wide. They also shot just 11-of-24 at the rim.
They can score in transition though — that hasn’t changed. After the Raptors knocked down four quick threes to start the fourth quarter to pull back from an eight-point deficit to finish the third, it was a gorgeous assist from Siakam to O.G. Anunoby (18 points) that gave the Raptors their first lead of the second half.
Another drive from Anunoby in transition kept things rolling. But a triple from Gary Trent Jr. (19 points) in the corner and a floater from Siakam — both against set defences — put the Raptors up by six with 1:33 to play. It got pretty tense from that point as the Cavs worked their way to the line enough to cut Toronto’s lead to one with 4.5 seconds to play, but Scottie Barnes found a streaking Achiuwa for a dunk to break the Cavs press and put the game on ice.
The Raptors shot 41.9 per cent from the floor and 43.3 per cent from deep as all five starters finished with double figures in scoring. The Cavaliers shot 48.7 per cent from the floor and made 10 threes to Toronto’s 13, which was the difference.
So an encouraging start, which should bode well, and might be considered necessary, given the Raptors face a tough slate of games to open the season and put a lot of off-season emphasis on leveraging their continuity to hit the ground running.
The first step was — in theory — a doozy. Unlike the stand-pat Raptors the Cavaliers went for it this past off-season when mortgaging their future to acquire 26-year-old, three-time all-star Mitchell, teaming him with Garland to give Cleveland an all-star backcourt to go along with their twin tower front court of star sophomore forward Evan Mobley and all-star centre Jarrett Allen.
The Raptors now go to Brooklyn to face the Nets. Then come two on the road in Miami, two at home against the 76ers and the new-look Atlanta Hawks. Not a softie in the bunch.
It wasn’t an elegant season-opening win. But it was a win. They’re going to be hard to come by this season in a tough conference, but the Raptors are 1-0.
“It makes tomorrow a little better, the plane ride a little more fun,” said VanVleet. “But we made our share of mistakes that we need to clean up and the schedule is not getting any easier.”
Toronto and Cleveland are viewed as Eastern Conference playoff contenders. Both looked the part Wednesday night in a chippy matchup that featured 16 lead changes, 17 ties and went down to the final buzzer. What else was expected between two evenly matched teams?
With 16.3 seconds remaining and Cleveland trailing by four points, Mitchell made a pair of free throws, pulling the Cavs within two points. Raptors shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. then split a pair of freebies, giving Cleveland another chance in a one-possession game.
But the Raptors purposely fouled Caris LeVert before the Cavs could get a look at a potential game-tying 3-pointer. LeVert made both. Then Precious Achiuwa’s late-game breakaway dunk extended the margin back to three. Mitchell’s 74-footer missed everything, and the crowd erupted.
Garland finished with four points, three assists and five turnovers in 13 minutes before an inadvertent collision with Trent in the backcourt caused a laceration to the inside of his left eyelid. The young star missed the final 28 minutes.
“We were without one of our weapons,” Mobley told cleveland.com after the loss. “It was tough to overcome. It put a lot of the ball-handling and playmaking responsibility on Donovan. We just couldn’t come up with enough plays late in the game.”
“It’s tough to see him go down like that in a freak accident. Don’t know the full extent. Don’t have news for y’all. But he’s a fighter and he’s a competitor and he’s going to be back strong,” Mitchell said of his backcourt mate. “The one thing about this group is we fought and competed. When one man goes down, the next guy is stepping up. That’s the road to being a really good team. It’s tough, but I’m proud of the way this group responded.”
The Raptors had six players in double figures. Pascal Siakam set the pace with 23 points. Barnes stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, seven assists, three rebounds and two steals, overcoming foul trouble for most of the night that limited him to 32 minutes. With Barnes on the court, the Raptors were an astonishing plus-20.
Mitchell spoke before the game about his uncontrollable excitement going into Wednesday night. He spent weeks envisioning the emotions when he put the Cavs jersey on for the first time.
It wasn’t the outcome he dreamed about.
Mitchell, in his official Cavs debut, was sensational. He finished with a game-high 31 points on 12-21 shooting, 9 assists and two steals. It was a classic Mitchell performance, a mix of pure shot making and downhill aggression that opens up open shots for teammates. Cedi Osman, in particular, benefited from sharing the court with Mitchell enroute to a 17-point night. He was 3-6 from three.
Parts integrating Mitchell — defensive scheme, chemistry with teammates, general comfort with a new environment — are going to take time. But he’s going to be doing things like this from the get go. Particularly after Garland went out, Mitchell’s minutes were how they keep battling with the Raptors even as the game got tighter in the second half
The hype heading into the game surrounded the budding rivalry between last year’s top two vote-getters in the Rookie of the Year race, Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley. Similar to how the award voting played out, Barnes was victorious. The reigning Rookie of the Year poured in 15 points, 7 assists, 2 steals, and was a game-high +20. Mobley finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 block.
The other headliner in this game was the debut of Cleveland’s star acquisition, Donovan Mitchell. He looked just as comfortable in the Wine & Gold as he did in the… whatever Utah’s jersey colours were. Mitchell was nothing short of spectacular, amassing a game-high 31 points and 9 assists while constantly picking apart Toronto’s aggressive defense.
Nick Nurse said pre-game that the first 20 games or so were going to be about tinkering with lineups and seeing what works. Staying true to his word, one of the first substitutes to enter the game was heralded second-round draft pick, Christian Koloko.
The rookie did not disappoint as he immediately changed the calculus of the game. In one of his first defensive sequences, Koloko was left on an island with the other half of Cleveland’s All-Star backcourt, Darius Garland, who pump-faked the rookie… only for Koloko to quickly recover and register his first block. On the offensive end, it was evident that the chemistry he and VanVleet had from the Rico Hines runs was not a mirage. On Koloko’s first offensive possession, he received an alley-oop lob from VanVleet that was slightly off-target, but a sign of things to come. A few possessions later, Mobley was caught in the middle of Fred and Christian pick-and-roll. He wasn’t sure if a lob was going to be thrown and the minor hesitation allowed Fred to hit a floater. Later, Koloko’s activity on the offensive glass earned a foul on Dean Wade, a trip to the line, and subsequently, his first Raptors point. On the next trip down the floor, Koloko set a solid screen that gave VanVleet enough room to hit a three. Sign me up for all the Koloko stock!
Before the game, JB Bickerstaff spoke about how these early season games are about seeing how guys fit together and likened the process to a boxing fight, “Jab, jab, counter.” His Cavaliers must have gotten the message because they answered a lethargic first quarter with an explosive second quarter, outscoring the Raptors 35-23.
The Cavs turnaround coincided with the debut of Juancho Hernangomez. Suffice it to say, “Bo Cruz” remained on the bench for the rest of the game.
These opening night opponents make for interesting test subjects entering the new campaign.
Cleveland is betting that Mitchell can solve the team’s offensive woes and hoping it doesn’t come at the expense of its biggest strength; he’s not exactly known for his work on the defensive end of the floor. Meanwhile, the Raptors leaned in to what they do best. They were long and now they’re longer. They were versatile and now they’re more versatile. The hope is that they’re good enough at what they do well to make up for some of the things they don’t.
Which approach will win out in the end? That’s not something that can be answered after one game, but the earliest of early returns can justify either side.
Mitchell was as good as advertised on Wednesday, scoring 31 points in his Cavs debut. They’ve got a pair of elite rim protectors in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley who more than made up for the defensive deficiencies of Mitchell and Darius Garland, who left the game in the first half after getting poked in the eye.
But in the final moments and with the game on the line, it was the Raptors that looked more comfortable – a benefit of their familiarity and all the chemistry they’ve spent the last 12 months building. Toronto put the clamps on the visiting Cavs, besting them 32-21 in the fourth quarter en route to a comeback 108-105 opening-night win.
“I think we just kind of stuck to the game plan, tightened up a couple of things,” said Pascal Siakam, who led the team with 23 points and 11 rebounds, and was one of six Toronto players to score in double figures – all five starters had at least 15 points. “I think it helps that we had that same group last year, so we kind of know each other.”
Some familiar concerns resurfaced here and there, as well. Their bench, which was last in the league in scoring a year ago, was outscored 33-18. Their nightly scoring drought came in the second quarter, as the Cavs ripped off a quick 13-0 run.
But, as it often did last season, their defence bailed them out. There was some typical Game 1 miscommunication on that end, particularly in the second and third quarters when they gave up 62 points, but they were far more connected than most teams are this early in the campaign.
You could see it right away. Flying around, as Toronto’s defence does when it’s locked in and at its best, Siakam picked off a Garland pass leading to a Gary Trent Jr. three-pointer in transition just a few minutes in. With their regular starters back together, the Raptors held Cleveland to 36 per cent in the opening quarter and then flipped the switch again in the fourth.
With less than four minutes remaining and the Cavs up by one point, three Raptors players swarmed Allen, with the quick hands of Fred VanVleet tearing the ball away and initiating a fast-break opportunity that led to a dunk for Scottie Barnes. They executed on both ends until the very end, when they successfully gave the foul and put Cleveland on the line up by three points with a few seconds left on the clock.
These early season games are going to come back to matter.
Take last year, for example. The Toronto Raptors started the season 9-13, dropping winnable games early as they looked to find an identity and work into a groove. At the season’s end, it came back to haunt them, finishing just three games back of the second seed in the conference before falling in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers.
This year, the Raptors took care of business to open the year. In an early season measuring-stick game against the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors found their offensive groove late, turning a dreadful shooting performance into a breakout 32-point fourth quarter en route to a 108-105 victory at Scotiabank Arena.
“It didn’t feel anything like last year just around here in general,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “They were ready. I thought just in general, just their body language and the communication they were having, they were really locked in in the morning prep and as well tonight.”
It wasn’t perfect though. Donovan Mitchell looked borderline unstoppable for stretches in the third quarter and defensive lapses allowed the Cavaliers to take an eight-point lead as the Raptors’ offense went quiet. But while the half-court offense predictably struggled, Toronto made the most of transition opportunities.
Four three-pointers to open the fourth quarter opened the door for a Raptors comeback before O.G. Anunoby found Scottie Barnes under the basket for a fastbreak chance to put Toronto up for good with just over three and a half minutes to go.
“Opening night last year I don’t think it went too well, we lost that game,” said Scottie Barnes reflecting on Toronto’s 15-point loss to the Washington Wizards to open last season. “Get a W to start this season so things are gonna be different. I’d say our continuity this game and the way things went, I feel like it went really well.”
With coach Nick Nurse staying true to a pre-game statement he’d mix and match his lineups to see what might work best, Koloko logged far more time than expected in Toronto’s 108-105 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.
With Cleveland using a big lineup that includes a couple of seven-footers in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, Koloko played 15 minutes and was the first big man off the bench in the second half.
He acquitted himself well — three points and six rebounds — and will surely gain more of Nurse’s confidence, at least until the injured Chris Boucher gets back. That Koloko came off the bench ahead of Thad Young in the first half and before Precious Achiuwa in the second is a testament to Nurse’s confidence and the matchup Cleveland presented.
“I always throw out 20 games (when) we’ll probably be tinkering around with some things,” Nurse said. “Some of it will be good, some of it we’ll learn a lot.
“I think that’s important for this team: What are the groups that are going to look (good) together going to be? That’s going to take a little time to figure out.”
It’ll get easier when Boucher and Otto Porter Jr, assume their spots in the rotation as Nurse rolled with nine players on opening night.
Anunoby finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists playing his usual all-around game. This time, however, it was Anunoby that the team turned to at its most desperate time. Ten of his 18 points came in that final frame, a frame in which he also had two steals and two assists.
More often than not, it was Barnes setting him up as he had four of his seven assists in the final period to go along with six points.
Precious Achiuwa, who scored seven of his 10 points in the fourth, actually capped off the win with a dunk in the dying seconds after the Cavs tried desperately to force a turnover off a Raptors inbound.
Instead, Fred VanVleet found a streaking Barnes who pitched to a wide-open Achiuwa for the game-sealer.
The Raptors, who trailed by six at halftime and eight after three quarters, outscored Cleveland 32-21 in the final frame, holding the Cavs to one field goal in the final 5 1/2 minutes.
The night was a far cry from a year ago when the Raptors dropped their home and season opener to Washington by 15 points. But it wasn’t just the result that was different.
“It didn’t feel anything like last year just around here in general,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “It was, like, I remember this press conference last year and it was like people were flying up and down the hallways everything’s happening and, like, what’s going on? You know, they didn’t feel any of that, they were they were ready. I thought just in general, just their body language and their communication they were having, they were really locked in in the morning prep and as well tonight.”
Barnes got into some early foul trouble on a couple of questionable calls, limiting his effectiveness.
There’s no secret the Raptors play a physical brand of ball and must in order to be successful, but it’s always a challenge early on in the season to establish that with officials.
The Cavs made a good show of this one despite losing their point guard and team heart and soul Darius Garland just before the first half ended. Garland was on the receiving end of an inadvertent Gary Trent Jr., swipe that wound up poking him in the eye. Post-game, Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff confirmed that Garland suffered a laceration to the inside of the eyelid.
Garland remained down on the court for some time before he was helped to the locker room. He did not return.
In his absence, the ball found its way to newcomer Donovan Mitchell, who was more than happy to go to work. Mitchell wound up with a game-high 31 points and had nine assists in his first game with the Cavs since an off-season trade from Utah. But it wasn’t enough to get his new team the win.
Given the hype around the Cavs, who spent the off-season trading futures for star guard Donovan Mitchell, who scored 31 points, it amounted to a quality victory. Cleveland’s preseason over-under win total is 47.5 — a notch higher than Toronto’s 45.5 in some popular sportsbooks — which only underlines the daunting nature of playing in a stacked Eastern Conference. If the teams expected to be at the top of the East remain formidable — and we’re talking about Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia — there are teams that finished below the Raptors last season that have a legitimate shot of vaulting ahead of them this season. The Nets, last year’s No. 7 seed, are one. The Cavaliers, who finished 9th a season ago, are another.
Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff compared these early-season games to “the early rounds of a prize fight,” with would-be heavyweights sizing up the punching power of the competition before the pecking order is determined.
“This is the jab-jab-counter part of the season,” Bickerstaff said. “This gives us an opportunity to test where we are, get a real gauge of how things fit.”
There were statements of intent on both ends from the get-go for the Raptors. In one first quarter sequence Scottie Barnes ran the bulk of the court and tried to dunk on both of Cleveland’s seven-footers, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. He missed both. But the fearlessness said something. Rookie Christian Koloko missed his first two dunks as an NBAer, too. But again, Nurse had to like the aggression from the rail-thin seven-footer.
Toronto, for its part, seems comfortable with the prospect of going toe-to-toe with the next team up; that’d be Brooklyn in Brooklyn on Friday. Not that it’s going to be easy. Toronto’s stilted morass of a half-court offence, a problem in the playoffs, looked just as stuck in its ways for stretches.
Nick Nurse wants the Raptors to be “hard to play against” this season. The Raptors head coach was pleased with his team’s effort on Wednesday, especially the team’s “good hard play … tipping balls and diving on the floor.”
If NBA teams still take their cues from the veterans in their midst, it sure looked as though the Raptors arrived at their season opener heeding the words of Thaddeus Young. Young, the 34-year-old Toronto forward beginning his 16th season for his seventh NBA team, spent part of this week talking about the importance of the Raptors starting the season with an all-out sprint from the blocks. No jogging.
Nurse did not waste any time getting right to that tinkering.
A minute into the second quarter he had already subbed in five of his reserves, mixing and matching lineups while looking for something he liked.
Nurse said even changing his starting five crossed his mind at one point heading into the season opener.
“Yes, fairly serious, I guess,” he said of the consideration. “We think about it here and there. I think probably more of the telltale sign will be how quickly I’m subbing. It may be we are moving pieces a little earlier than traditionally. I could see that being a factor.”
And that is exactly how it played out against the visiting Cavs.
The Raptors front office took care of some paperwork ahead of the season opener, exercising the third-year option on Scottie Barnes and the four-year team options on Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn.
All three players are now signed through the 2023-24 season.
Outside of maybe Flynn, extensions were givens.
Flynn is entering his third year with the team and while he has yet to lock down a definitive spot in the rotation, he has had enough moments and showed enough development to have that option picked up.
The Raptors came into this one a little short-handed playing without the services of Otto Porter Jr. (hamstring), Chris Boucher (hamstring) and Khem Birch (knee).
The Cavs came in with a decision to be made on who would start with the quartet of Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.
It came down to one of Isaac Okoro or Caris LeVert and JB Bickerstaff and his coaching staff optioned for the experience and two-way game of LeVert over the youth and defensive stalwart Okoro.