On October 2nd of last year, we saw the Raptors open up their preseason by bludgeoning the Utah Jazz in a 32-point win. They leaned hard on a great defensive performance, busted out in transition as often as they possibly could, but the biggest difference between the two games? This year's Raptors dished out 30 assists, which dwarf's the Raptors of last year, who finished with 18 assists. For those counting at home, that would be the best assist team in the NBA, and the worst by some margin. It's a counting stat in a preseason opener, but for a team that is preaching a change in approach? It's about as good an outcome as you could hope for.
The Raptors were super active in moving from action to action, and worked hard to make it so that they rarely ever let the defense rest for an isolation with anything less than 8 seconds on the clock. They kept churning through offense, forcing the defense to run through screens and step up -- even if they didn't create full on rotations -- and that allowed them to squeak through the cracks for a few more buckets and a few more trips to the line. Diligence!
"I think our guys did a great job tonight. Attacking, sharing the ball, and playing together for the biggest part of the game."
Darko Rajakovic after the Raptors win
Their halfcourt offense scored 96 points per 100 possessions last night (they averaged 94.5 last season), as they toggled through different looks -- including a lot of high-post stuff that Darko was teasing throughout training camp -- to varying degrees of success. A big part of their success, was of course, pushing the pace. They got into transition on 27-percent of their possessions, and if you're keeping track at home, that's 10-percent higher than their average last season; which was second in the NBA.
It's been clear that the Raptors are moving at least some portion of the offense over to Scottie Barnes this season -- how much hasn't been exactly clear -- but at least in last night's game, he brought the majority of his impact in transition. He was, as per usual, dynamite as he measured defensive responses while in motion; applying heaps of pressure as he glided towards the rim and picked out his long, rangy, wing partners who followed him downhill. Sure, the Raptors found their way to the free throw line in the halfcourt, but their overall volume and efficiency at the rim was buoyed by Barnes' conducting of the team in the fastest parts of the game. He was sublime. Sure, he wiggled to the bucket, and bashed to the bucket on a couple halfcourt possessions -- and I'm sure we'll see more of how he's used in upcoming games -- but he got to be rather hands off in that department.
As for the Raptors incumbent star, Pascal Siakam: he was sloppy to start, truly. The defensive attention wasn't there, the handle was fairly loose on offense, and similar to Barnes, he was asked to operate in the periphery somewhat in the halfcourt. It shouldn't be much of a surprise that Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby reached double-digits quickly as the offense is, at least in part, going to rely on shooters to hit shots; and since both were doing it really often, hey, the ball finds who it needs to. Siakam did turn the tide though, and mostly on the defensive side of the floor where we got to see him use his unique physical tools to keep up with rapid guards in space, and rotate with length - it was good.
Siakam played the hits to some degree, and you can watch them above. The Schroder-Poeltl pick n' roll doesn't net much advantage with the middle of the floor crowded (stacking Siakam & Barnes on the weak-side will do that), so the ball shifts over to Siakam quickly, and he does a good job to wiggle into a gap, draw a dig before finding Schroder for three. Afterwards, just a classic, empty-side iso to cook Barnes in. The most interesting play, though? The Gut Chicago action they ran for him. Neither Schroder or Poeltl really land their screen, but Siakam is a special athlete in space and he loses Duarte in the process before hitting the and-1. You can quibble about Lyles failing to dig, or that McGee played too much to Poeltl who had a tag, but this is what the Raptors are trying to do, right? Put Siakam back in space, with momentum, so he can make a killing. Good stuff.