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There will be other gut-punch nights like Wednesday’s season opener for the Toronto Raptors (0-1) this season, but maybe not with a capacity crowd on hand for a collective, 19,000-strong groan after an opponent’s game winner with 2.1 seconds remaining, as Indiana’s George Hill hit to lead the Pacers to a 90-88 comeback win.
It goes without saying that no team should be dropping a double digit lead – at home, no less – in the fourth quarter. But it’s still difficult to see last night’s opener account for no more than an ‘L’ in the standings considering the numerous positives that were on display against a club that might just hold the pole position on the No. 3 spot in the East this season.
Feeding off the enthusiastic energy of the packed crowd, the Raptors showcased some shiny new toys in Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas (more on him momentarily) and demonstrated a continued commitment to defensive intensity. In the end, though, shooting problems carried into the new season and poor crunch time defence enabled Indy to hit nine of their final 12 shots.
Making the Adjustments
Four quarters, four decidedly different looks for the Raptors. The first quarter was a surprisingly free-flowing, up-tempo 12 minutes that saw Toronto trail by just two points, but clearly Dwane Casey wasn’t happy seeing his club in shootout mode. They came out with a far more deliberate pace in the second and didn’t allow a field goal for two and a half minutes en route to a tie game heading into the break. The third quarter was the team’s most successful by a wide margin, as they hounded the ball handler (more below) while also creating ball movement and creating open looks. Of course, what had been steady, progressive improvement through 36 minutes fell by the wayside during a fourth quarter in which the shots weren’t falling and the ‘D’ was slow to address a red hot David West (25 points, 14 in the fourth), who found more than his fair share of wide open shots.
Full Court Pressure
The Raps unveiled a new wrinkle in Casey’s defensive system, regularly applying added pressure to the ball handler for what was often the full length of the court. The lockdown effort produced 19 Pacer turnovers and led to 17 Raptors’ points, off-setting much of what was a poor shooting night from the home side. So why are we seeing this for the first time under Casey? I’m not sure a full court approach would have been all that effective before Lowry (five steals as part of a stat-filling extravaganza that also included 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds) came on board.
If Lowry is the best all-around Raptor and Andrea Bargnani will, ultimately, settle in as the team’s leading scorer, Valanciunas might already be its most popular. The rookie got no shortage of “exciting new face” cheers during the pre-game introductions, but its what he did once the game got going that really brought the ACC crowd to life. In 23 minutes, Valanciunas was all over the paint on both ends of the floor, scoring most of his 12 points off putbacks and in the low post and collecting 10 rebounds (including six on the offensive glass). Being the first Raptors rookie to post a double-double in their debut since Damon Stoudemire was impressive, but even more eye-opening was the affect that he already has over his club’s collective energy, a point made clear when the Pacers exploited a listless Raptors’ ‘D’ for two quick baskets down low after Valanciunas left the floor with four fouls in the third quarter.
It’s hard to know where to point the finger of blame over the collapse of what was a 10-point lead as late as with 5:58 remaining in the fourth quarter against a team lacking a clear crunch time scorer (even with a healthy Danny Granger). Bargnani needed to be more assertive in stepping out on West, but shouldn’t Casey have addressed a defensive match-up that wasn’t working? Lowry scored the team’s final four points, but isn’t he supposed to provide the kind of leadership that this team lacks? DeMar DeRozan missed the type of at-the-bucket shot that you need to make in the dying minutes of a close game, but shouldn’t he get some credit for making an incredibly athletic move to get into that position? Bottom line: Wednesday night could have – and, quite possibly, should have – been a Raptors’ win.
It appears as though the open looks will be there for the Raptors’ supposedly improved group of perimeter shooters, but it’s still going to fall to them to make their shots. Wednesday night saw the team shoot a costly 36.3% (33-91) from the floor, likely the difference in what was just a two-point game. The worst offenders were a quartet of wings (DeRozan, Landry Fields, Terrence Ross and Alan Anderson) who combined to shoot 20% (5-25). Not that the team’s starting frontcourt was much better (Bargnani and Valanciunas were 10-30).
The Other Rookie
Speaking of those poor-shooting wings, Ross’ involvement in the rotation may be a problem, particularly early on. The coaching staff knows that it is responsible for facilitating the development of its two rookies, but they also need to operate on the basis of maximizing their team’s present potential if play-offs are even so much as a pipe dream. That challenge was on display last night, as Ross wasn’t particularly close on two wide open three-point attempts and was promptly sent to the bench after just 6:24 of floor time, leaving Jose Calderon to shift over to the two (DeRozan manned the three) for much of the fourth quarter. It’s perfectly reasonable to anticipate some degree of a learning curve for Ross, but that may not jive with what Casey and co. are trying to do right now.
- As anyone who read my final pre-season recap can imagine, I was none too excited to have Kardinal Offishal back in the house as the “mystery” halftime performer, particularly with Drake off tour and in town (!!!) following his high school graduation appearance earlier in the week. I couldn’t help but wonder if Kardinal was, in fact, called in as a back-up option, given the less-than-celebratory unveiling of his hyped mystery (Mark Strong stated it without much excitement during a pre-game contest).
- Can’t say that I share Doug Smith’s negativity over the DeRozan extension (four years, $38 million), which was signed shortly before last night’s midnight deadline. I agree with his basic premise of “get paid when you earn it”, particularly given that he would have still remained a controllable RFA next summer, but I find it difficult to see his deal ever looking like much of an albatross. Even if he stagnates and maintains his current level of production through the deal, he will enter the final year as a just-turned 28-year-old averaging around 14 points per game and making $9.5 million. That deal looks good when compared to other, less productive, older players in the $9.5-10 million range, such as Andrei Kirilenko (two years, $20 million) and Gerald Wallace (four years, $40 million).
Speaking of Gerald Wallace, the Raptors will next be one of the first teams to pay a visit to the new Barclays Center when they visit the new-look Nets on Saturday (7:30pm, SN).
Prediction: Nets 104, Raptors 99 (1-0 this season)