1. Get used to reading this: The Raptors won by playing shutdown defence. Toronto limited Minnesota to 94 points on 34 per cent shooting, despite allowing 100 field-goal attempts by the Timberwolves, as the Raptors shut down everything other than the offensive glass. The starting five was excellent, as Jakob Poeltl offered a like-sized deterrent against Minnesota’s dual seven-footer lineup. But Toronto was just as stingy on defense in its smallball group to close the game, where their unique ability to switch across four positions kept the Timberwolves to nothing more than long jumpers and the occasional putback. It would be a disappointment if the Raptors finished any lower than top 10 in defensive efficiency, given their personnel.
“I thought we still needed to play faster. What I mean by that is there were moments that we were coming past half court, and then we did not get into offence early enough and quickly enough,” Rajaković said. “That’s something that we are still going to work on. It’s one of those things (where) we cannot just be watching each other. We’ve gotta be able to cut and drive and collapse (the opposing) defence and find open people.”
Rajaković promised to play 10 players, in contrast to a year ago, when Nick Nurse often had trouble finding an eighth. Players eight through 10: Jalen McDaniels, Malachi Flynn and Gradey Dick. The rookie got only two minutes in his initial stint; Dick’s leash will have to get longer. Flynn also wasn’t very effective, leading Rajaković to have Gary Trent Jr. play some de facto point guard to give Schröder enough of a rest. The same thing happened to start the fourth quarter.
At the same time, the new coach wasn’t afraid to lean on someone you might not expect. In the second quarter, Rajaković was trying to get Scottie Barnes back in the game for Trent. However, O.G. Anunoby also requested a breather at that moment. Last year, Trent might have stayed in the game; Wednesday, Rajaković went to McDaniels, who promptly set up Schröder for a corner 3 in transition.
A simple reality: The reserves the Raptors are counting on aren’t proven players, and it is nearly impossible for this team to put out a lineup that has above-average shooting. As much as Nurse was criticized last season, there was a big reason behind sticking to a short bench and trying to get out in transition by being aggressive defensively.
Even Rajaković, who has been presented as the anti-Nurse, knows that.
“I always think that (at the) start of the season, you can sneak in wins and winning games just thanks to being really good defensively and being able to get out and run,” Rajaković said last week. “It’s much easier to build those habits — running in transition and scoring early in the clock — than to get the chemistry of always playing in the half court. For that, you will definitely need more time.”
No doubt: If this is going to work, it is going to take plenty of time, especially offensively. The togetherness with which the Raptors played Wednesday is an excellent foundation as that process takes place.
Toronto shot just 40 per cent from the floor and struggled mightily in the halfcourt for most of the night as Timberwolves centre Rudy Gobert made life difficult at the rim. Fixing their halfcourt offence is next on the to-do list.
“I thought we still needed to play faster,” said Rajakovic, who like his team’s urgency in transition, but wants more pace in the halfcourt as well where things seemed to bog down too often. “What I mean by that is there were moments that we were coming past half-court, and then we did not get into offence early enough and quickly enough. That’s something that we are still going to work on. It’s one of those things like, we cannot just be watching each other. We’ve gotta be able to cut and drive and collapse defence and find open people. [There were] moments we were really good and moments we did not do a great job today with it.”
So, yeah, the Raptors shooting just 18-of-50 from the floor in the opening two quarters looked familiar even as they eked out a 53-51 halftime lead. But they took care of the ball well enough (five turnovers) after struggling on that front in the pre-season and even with the departure of Nurse, who ushered in an aggressive, ball-hawking defensive approach, Toronto was able to cause Minnesota — a popular sleeper favourite in the Western Conference — plenty of problems, holding the visitors to 33 per cent from the floor.
Another vestige of Nurse’s tenure as head coach was to play a fairly tight eight-man rotation and rely on his starters more than any coach in the league. Rajakovic has pledged to use a 10-man rotation in part to keep his starters fresh, but also, he says, because he believes he has a deep team. It’s only one game, but Rajakovic can maybe see where Nurse was coming from a little more clearly. After his starters pushed Toronto’s lead to 10 midway through the third quarter, the bench unit gave it all back as Minnesota closed the third quarter on a 14-3 run. Malachi Flynn — the fourth-year point guard who could never crack Nurse’s rotation — was minus-11 in his five third-quarter minutes and minus-14 in his 10 minutes for the game as the Timberwolves took a 74-73 lead into the fourth quarter.
Rookie Gradey Dick made his first NBA appearance but played just two minutes. Missing from the rotation was Chris Boucher who has been a fixture the past two seasons.
Eventually, the Raptors were able to open up just enough breathing room as Rajakovic found a stout closing lineup that featured Precious Achiuwa at centre instead of Poeltl and Toronto made just enough shots.
It was as a win, the first of how many no one knows, but without question a successful way to start the season.
After a bit of a rocky start where both teams shot under 37% from the field, the second quarter was much of the same. It was one of those games where there were a lot of whistles where there shouldn’t have been, and a lot of no-calls when there should have been. Though Minnesota got into the penalty just 3.5 minutes into the second quarter, the Wolves began hunting for fouls instead of finishing possessions. This led to a screeching halt on the offensive end, allowing for the Raptors to get out in transition and to the line. A 15-4 Toronto run put them ahead by seven as things looked particularly rickety for the visitors. Scottie Barnes (17/8/5/7 stocks) was particularly impressive during this stretch with his grab-and-go ability.
It really felt more like a game of red light, green light with the amount of starting and stopping. Even the Raptors weren’t able to hang onto their lead, as the Wolves slowly clawed back thanks to same late shot making by Edwards.
Things sped up to start the second half. Mostly for Toronto, as they kept shoving the ball down Minnesota’s throats in transition. They enjoyed a significant advantage in fast break points, as the Wolves struggled to get back on defense after misses. If the cart looked rickety in the second period when they were down seven, then smoke was coming from out the hood, as first-year NBA coach Darko Rajaković engineered a 10-point Raptors lead. Much like the end of the previous quarter, Chris Finch got his team to battle back. The bench to responded with big-time plays on both ends of the court. Throughout the entire comeback was the presence of Rudy Gobert (15/13/6 stocks), who was super active all night, was very noticeable. His 13 rebounds helped the Wolves win the rebounding battle 62-47. Some way, some how, Minnesota led by one heading into the final period.
It was Pascal Siakam who started the game off with a three pointer to get the Raptors rolling. Yet the first quarter was mostly the Anthony Edwards show — he scored 12 of Timberwolves 25 first quarter points. The game was tied 25-25 after the first 12 minutes.
O.G. Anunoby took over more in the second half and was the highest scoring Raptor with 13 points. Overall, the second quarter was sloppier. The ball seemed to be slippery, passing was messy, and it seemed like the Raptors were struggling to adjust to this new style a little. There were six turnovers total for the Raptors.
Still, the Raptors led 53-51 at the half way mark.
The first big lead for the Raptors came in the third quarter when they went up ten points over the Timberwolves. On a few great drives from Dennis Schroder, and a few dunks from Scottie Barnes, the Raptors gained their biggest lead so far in the game.
Yet, a cold stretch for the Raptors resulted in Minnesota coming back to takeover the lead 74-73 at the end of the third quarter — still anyone’s game heading into the final minutes.
The fourth quarter started out with some flashy plays, and the Raptors were playing decent defence while also being active on the glass — leading them to force a few turnovers onto Minnesota.
It was definitely a closer win than maybe desired, but still positive. The Raptors were pretty safe in the final stretch with a six point lead in the final minute. Even when the lack of stoppage meant Jakob Poeltl was not able to be subbed into the final plays, Precious Achiuwa was able to hold down the fort.
The Raptors won with a final score of 97-94.
And the moments that failed demonstrated just how much work needs to be done. The Timberwolves bullied Toronto inside at times, guard Anthony Edwards was able to muscle his way to his spots and the Raptors bogged down for stretches of half-court offence.
But for coach Darko Rajakovic, the whole season is about discovery.
“A successful season for me, it’s really about the standard of how we play and, for us, improving week by week,” he said before the game. “We’re entering a season that’s 82 games long. We are looking at a lot of players that have tremendous talent on our team.
“It’s about our cohesiveness and how closely we’re gonna work, how we’re going to support each other, how we’re going to grow through the season. My dream is that we play our best basketball at the end of the year, so we continue to grow as the season (has) progressed.”
Rajakovic used his desired 10-man rotation. The mild surprise was that rookie Gradey Dick played a couple of minutes and Chris Boucher never got off the bench. But it also meant that no starter played more than Barnes’ 38 minutes and everyone was fresh down the stretch.
“Ten (players),” Rajakovic said, “because I believe that we need to keep energy of all of our guys playing every single night in high intensity. “And … on certain nights, it can be nine. You know, I’m not married to the number 10 or 11 or nine. I’m just married to the standard of playing the best basketball we can.”
Despite his reputation and brash personality, Calin was convinced by a friend of Schroder’s to give him another chance in Braunschweig. “I talked with him and I said, ‘Look, this is the direction that I want you to take,’ Calin explains. “And I cannot forget. He said to me: ‘Liviu, I will show you that I will do everything that you want and I will get exactly where you want and I will get to be a professional player at 15.’ And from this moment, I said: ‘Okay, so come to the farm team.’”
SUM Baskets Braunschweig was a young developmental team that played in Germany’s second division, but the level of play was high, especially for a 15-year-old Schroder relatively new to organized basketball and going against American imports up to 24 years old. Schroder still had an attitude problem with coaches and teammates at times, but the turning point came at a practice when Calin got him to defend different players at several spots on the floor. He had to get a certain number of spots in order to move on from the drill, but his older teammates refused to take it easy on him, scoring on him over and over and making him repeat the drill until Schroder got so frustrated that he started to cry.
“And for me it was like a test. A test to see how can he resist,” Calin says. “I said: ‘you have to decide if you can play at this level.’” When Schroder didn’t say anything in response, Calin was sure he would never come back to practice again. But the next day, there he was. “And after this moment, he was like a machine,” Calin remembers. “He was very, very serious. Very, very dedicated with me.”
“Some other coaches or people had some, I cannot say problems, but complaints about him. But me, nothing. He was perfect.”
“He was just the guy who was honest every single time,” Schroder says about Calin, who became the owner of Basketball Löwen Braunschweig during COVID when the club went through a rough patch in order for Calin to keep his job. “Keeping people accountable. It didn’t matter if you’re the first, best player or the last or one of these young guys or the older guys. He just kept it real.
“Without him, I probably wouldn’t even be near where I’m at.”
Ice cold water was dumped over Darko Rajakovic instead of champagne or sports drink to celebrate his first-ever win as a head coach in the NBA.
It may have been a fitting way to mark a new era for the Toronto Raptors.
Dennis Schroder had 22 points and seven assists as Toronto fended off the Minnesota Timberwolves 97-94 on Wednesday in both teams’ season opener. It was Schroder’s first regular-season game with the Raptors and Rajakovic’s first patrolling Toronto’s sideline.
“We got all the ice ready for him and put it over him and I think it’s a special moment for him,” said Schroder, adding that Rajakovic was screaming before the ice bath even touched him. “Great experience for all of us in the locker-room.
“We just want to keep getting better every single day and try to get as many wins as possible.”
Schroder became the first player to score over 20 points in his Raptors debut since Kawhi Leonard had 24 to kick off the 2018-19 season. Schroder signed a two-year, US$26 million contract with Toronto on July 12, effectively replacing beloved veteran Fred VanVleet as the Raptors starting point guard.
“No no no we’re not starting that,” chuckled Schroder at the comparison to Leonard, the centrepiece of Toronto’s title run in 2019. “I’m just glad to get a W. They won the championship in 2019, we’re just trying to get that winning culture back on our side
“I think Darko’s been doing a great job since training camp, telling everybody to move the ball, ball movement, body movement, and I’m just glad we won the game.”
Anunoby should be celebrating not only a tone-setting win, but also that he showcased everything he brings to the table to start a year he hopes will lead to a massive payday in unrestricted free agency. Anunoby will get a big deal, Toronto can offer more than anyone else and will push hard to keep him when the time comes, but if he keeps playing like this, his demands will grow and he’ll have a case.
Anunoby was rewarded with his first All-Defence selection last season, an honour that was long overdue, and he had three blocks and two steals on Wednesday and was pretty much everywhere the Wolves didn’t want him to be.
“It does a lot,” big man Jakob Poeltl told Postmedia postgame of what having Anunoby on the team allows the Raptors to do defensively.
“I mean, guys like him like just take our defence to the next level,” Poeltl said.
“I think we have very talented defensive squad anyway. We work really well together. Everybody has a good feel for it, everybody’s bought into it. So that’s a good start already,” Poeltl told Postmedia. “But then guys like (Anunoby) who can just guard so well individually and can kind of take us to that next level on defence,” he said.
Anunoby wasn’t his normal effective self defensively in the first quarter, Edwards rang off 10 straight points for the Wolves, but he knew how to adjust.
“I was a little too loose with him. He’s a great player and I was giving him too much space,” Anunoby said. “He was pretty comfortable. That’s what great players do when they’re comfortable, they make shots. So just try to make it difficult for him (from there). Just be physical with him and force him to take tough shots.”
Anunoby has built his reputation at the other end as a marksman from the corners, he’s a knockdown corner three-point shooter, but the Raptors want more out of him this season and he does too. Anunoby actually launched nine three-pointers in the game, something he did only six times all last season, but it was interesting where he shot them from. Six were not from the corner and he nailed half of those above-the-break attempts. One was a step-back three, one a pull-up.
It’s going to take time for this group to gel this year, especially the half-court offense, but for now, this group will bank wins any way it can. A not-so-pretty 97-94 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves clinched Rajaković his first career NBA head coaching win and allowed Toronto to start an uncertain season with a big step in the right direction.
The win led to celebration in the locker room as cheering could be heard through the closed doors. Moments later, Rajaković emerged with remnants of the ice water shower the team had just doused him in.
For the Raptors, it was the team’s big offseason addition Dennis Schröder that allowed Toronto to break out of its half-court funk late against Minnesota. He twice found Pascal Siakam behind the arc who nailed a pair of clutch threes for Toronto. Eventually, a steal from O.G. Anunoby allowed Scottie Barnes to kill some clock and flush the game-clinching dunk.
“He’s an experienced point guard. He does a good job of organizing and running the team in the half-court,” Rajaković said of Schröder. “There’s so much new with our team and having somebody who’s been through different teams in that role of a point guard, brings calmness to the team and he was a couple of times he was able to talk to guys, put them in the right spots, and help our offense.”
One focus of this offseason was getting O.G. Anunoby to take more above-the-break threes this year. Early returns suggest he’s ready to take on that challenge. He nailed three above-the-break threes in the first half, the first one coming courtesy of a savvy find from Gary Trent Jr. who made the kick-out pass after working the pick-and-roll with Jakob Poeltl in the first quarter.
“That’s definitely something I’ve been working on to get more threes, not just catch-and-shoot ones,” Anunoby said of his pull-up three-point shooting. “Just try to get some off-the-dribble, off screens, they’re going under, shoot those ones.”