You hope that things come together perfectly for your basketball team, but that is never particularly realistic unless you happen to be the Golden State Warriors. Instead, you have to plan on the basis that things won’t necessarily go according to plan and find ways to overcome the low points. In that sense, the Toronto Raptors’ (7-3) 100-81 victory over the under-manned New Orleans Pelicans went just the way the club had anticipated heading into the season.
GM Masai Ujiri and the Raps figured that the shots wouldn’t be falling every night and the club’s 31.6% (12-38) first half shooting performance certainly showed that to be true. However, it was their defensive calling card that kept Toronto in the game, enabling them to withstand some terrible early shooting and even escape the first half with the score tied. From there, the Raptor offense rounded into form while the team’s defense stayed strong, outscoring the Pels 60-41 in the second half and holding their visitors to 36.6% (30-82) shooting along the way to a season-worst 81 points.
The defensive effort probably would’ve looked even more impressive if not for a series of crippling injuries that kept five New Orleans regulars off the floor on Friday. Anthony Davis led a talented mash unit for the Pelicans that also included Tyreke Evans, Kendrick Perkins, Norris Cole and Quincy Pondexter, with Jrue Holliday held to just 21 minutes of court time as he slowly works his way back from a leg injury. Eric Gordon took charge of his short-handed unit with a game-high 30 points on 11-22 shooting, but he didn’t have much help.
On the other side of the injury spectrum were the host Raptors, who were still without Terrence Ross but saw DeMarre Carroll make a surprise return to the starting five. While Carroll wasn’t perfect (five fouls, 5-14 shooting, two turnovers), he was one of five Raps to score in double digits and finished with a game-high +20. Better than Carroll was a newly shorn Jonas Valanciunas, who scored 20 points on 8-11 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. DeMar DeRozan also got in on the double-double action with 15 points and 11 assists, falling four rebounds shy of a triple-double.
Although Gordon had an impressive night statistically for the Pelicans, he anchored what was a fairly static, ball-stopping New Orleans offense for much of the night, and the Raptors were able to zero in on that. The result was a steady, consistent defensive effort in which Toronto held the 1-8 Pels between 19 and 21 points in each quarter and made sure that Gordon didn’t get much help. Outside of him and Holliday, the rest of the team shot just 23.9% (11-46). On the Raps, only garbage time guys Delon Wright and Anthony Bennett finished in the negative.
Where New Orleans relied upon one go-to scorer, Toronto proved a tougher puzzle to solve by spreading the scoring around and getting contributions from a wide variety of sources. JV and Kyle Lowry shared the scoring lead with 20 points apiece, while DeRozan, Carroll and Patrick Patterson all hit double digits, with Luis Scola and Cory Joseph each falling one point short with nine. The aforementioned scorers all shared the ball fairly evenly, with each player taking between seven (Joseph) and 14 (Carroll) shots from the floor.
It is a fairly minor gripe and perhaps even an unfair one for a guy who played just 2:29 on Friday, but Anthony Bennett just doesn’t seem to be getting it. While his No. 1 over-all predecessor sat in street clothes while sporting season averages of 24 points and nine rebounds, Bennett was going through the same growing pains and rookie moments as Raps’ first rounder Delon Wright, with whom he shared garbage time. In a short burst of playing time, he took an ill-advised jumper off the dribble and flung a bad pass out of bounds for a turnover. He’s finally being asked to perform under the radar and outside the expectations tied to the No. 1 over-all label, and he isn’t exactly proving his value.
Without knowing the exact specifics of game day operations planning and how tightly arranged things must be prior to tip-off, I will say that I’m a bit surprised the Raptors couldn’t pull together a quick tribute or acknowledgment of the tragedy taking place in Paris. Nice to see former Raptor and current Pelican Alexis Ajinca offer his own subtle nod to his home country with “Pray for Paris” written on his shoe.
Notables in attendance at the ACC on Friday night included Bills QB Tyrod Taylor, who lobbed signed footballs into the crowd during a second quarter timeout, and Dikembe Mutombo, who was in Toronto ahead of his All Star 2016 fan initiative across Canada.
Bruno and Bebe have officially hit the 905. As expected, the Brazilian duo of Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira were sent to the D-League to join the Raptors 905 ahead of their first regular season game on Saturday in Fort Wayne against the Mad Ants, for whom Caboclo played sparingly last season. They are joined by Friday signees Nick Wiggins, older brother of Andrew, and two-time Raps Summer League standout Ronald Roberts. It will be interesting to see how the new additions gel with a pre-existing 905 group that includes Sim Bhullar, Shannon Scott, Melvin Johnson and Keanau Post.
The “it’s still early” caveat certainly rings true here, but it’s hard to argue that there’s been a more disappointing team in this young NBA season than the Pelicans. A playoff team from last season anchored by an emerging MVP contender in Davis, New Orleans was not expecting to win just one of their first nine games, a record that places them on par with the L.A. Lakers and Brooklyn Nets and a notch below the dysfunctional Sacramento Kings. Injuries have clearly played a role, but the healthy charges need to figure out how to prevent the season from going off the rails in a hurry in the loaded West. Going 0-4 against the East thus far won’t help.
As seems to be the theme with the early season slate, the Raps are back on the road for a five-game slate that kicks off on Sunday night in Sacramento (9:00pm, TSN2).
Prediction: Raps 104, Kings 102 (record this season: 4-5)