After the first game of the Toronto Raptors’ (1-0) 2015-16 campaign, I’m not sure we know much more about the club than before it. Yes, they did come away with an exciting 106-99 win over a fellow Eastern Conference playoff contender in the Indiana Pacers. But they had to overcome some horrific shooting, a 16-point deficit and an eye-opening 21 turnovers in order to get the W in their home opener.
The slow start for the Raps, which saw them manage just 37 points heading into the break, eventually gave way to an energized second half that demonstrated progress in a number of areas. DeMarre Carroll looked increasingly comfortable in his role as defensive stopper as the game wore on, Jonas Valanciunas avoided foul trouble and asserted himself more offensively and early free throw woes gave way to Toronto closing out the tight contest with some timely freebies.
As expected, the All-Star back court of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry accounted for the bulk of the scoring, bearing responsibility for 48 (DeRozan had 25, Lowry had 23) of the team’s 106 points. Meanwhile, the debuting Raptors also had a hand in the victory. Carroll helped force Paul George into a 4-17 shooting night while adding 14 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals of his own. Luis Scola made an impact as the surprise starting four, grabbing eight rebounds and helping steady the ship while splitting time with Patrick Patterson. But perhaps the most interesting new additions came from the bench, where Bismack Biyombo offered an uneven 15 minutes that featured foul trouble and some ill-advised shots but also a clear difference-making vibe and Cory Joseph entered to a raucous ovation and looked comfortable as one of Dwane Casey’s crunch time five.
Jonas steps up
The lazy writer in me is tempted to give in to the Hot Take narrative that JV’s huge 21-point, 15-rebound night signal that he’s ready to turn the corner and become the dominant interior force that Raptor fans have been waiting for. Of course, Valanciunas had strong showings like Wednesday night’s effort last season – just not every night. If he can do it again in Boston on Friday night and against Milwaukee on Sunday, then we might be talking about some truly substantial growth and development. Until then, let’s enjoy Wednesday’s standout, efficient effort but pump the brakes on the ‘JV has arrived’ headlines.
Figuring it out
Of the seven Raptors who saw significant playing time (more than 10 minutes) against Indiana, four were making their Toronto debut, so it stands to reason that things were a little out of sorts out of the gate. The encouraging sign came in how the team responded after the half. Carroll seemed more trusting of the defence of Joseph, Terrence Ross and others in the second half, allowing the former Hawk to freelance more and make life difficult for Pacers not named Paul George. DeRozan and Lowry also shook off some early cobwebs and got the bulk of their offensive production going in the second half, with DeRozan scoring 18 points and Lowry scoring 16 over the final 24 minutes. Even after Indy reclaimed the lead with just over two minutes remaining, the Raps stuck to their game plan, with JV and DeRozan engineering a 5-0 run that put Toronto up for good and a clutch team defensive effort keeping the Pacers to four points the rest of the way.
If there is anytime that sloppy, turnover-plagued play is remotely forgivable during the regular season, it’s in Game 1 as players are still getting their timing down and working their way into form. Unfortunately, many of the maladies that plagued the Raps early on Wednesday seem like they could re-emerge at other times over the course of these next 81 games. The shots may not always be falling, so it isn’t hard to envision guys like DeRozan forcing his shots as he did at times in the first half. Neither Lowry nor Joseph can necessarily be labelled as traditional point guards, so turnovers may come in inopportune situations. Even Carroll’s first quarter injury scare had to serve as a sobering reminder that this club isn’t deep enough to contend with a key injury.
There may not be a ton of buzz around the Raptors right now, but you knew MLSE would add their promotional touches to the home opener, particularly as they continue to roll out the re-brand with new unis and a new logo. That logo was front and centre at mid-court, but also on the free t-shirt giveaways to every fan in attendance. Those fans were also treated to a mini-Blue Jays celebration featuring Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Ryan Goins, along with a halftime performance from R&B great Montell Jordan.
Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger all debuted for Indiana on Monday, but all three debuts took secondary billing to the return of George, who missed all of last season after his cringe-inducing leg break while with Team USA. Despite not shooting well, PG13 still filled the stat sheet with 17 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and three steals while making nine of 10 attempts from the line. He also showcased his fully healed leg while leaping over Biyombo on a dunk attempt (he didn’t finish, but got fouled in the act).
The Raps’ first road game comes Friday night in Boston (7:30pm, SN1), where it certainly won’t be easy to see Amir Johnson in Celtic green.
Prediction: Celtics 103, Raps 96 (record this season: 1-0)