Raptors split pre-season with Houston | Siakam gon’ get his money | Lowry…just lowry
OG Anunoby’s game was exactly what the preseason is all about from a development standpoint: He played in two different potential regular season roles and was given ample leash to try new things with the freedom to fail. So long as those failures don’t actually cost him time and are instead just scaled back when the season begins, that’s a great use of preseason action. Here, that meant Anunoby once again doing more driving and creating for himself, both as the fifth starter and as a higher-usage piece with the bench. He looks dramatically better in the former role, though he made a couple of nice reads attacking, including a kick-out for a Malcolm Miller three.
The most important note on Anunoby might be that while the offence was uneven, his defence never wavered. For the second game in a row, Anunoby looked like the best defender on the floor for the Raptors. He was a stout option against Westbrook and Eric Gordon, timed his digs well to help create turnovers and took a savvy slide-in charge on Gerald Green. He was credited with three steals and probably had a hand in two or three more Rockets turnovers. If Anunoby defends like this, he’ll start and any offence he provides will be a bonus.
One — First things first: Before anything else, the Raptors need to shore up their defence, which is not at all surprising in preseason. Their potential is obvious — at one point James Harden was screening to shake OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam only to find Pat McCaw or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — but they’re inconsistent and sloppy. Nick Nurse demands that his players play tight and aggressively on the perimeter, but that takes getting used to, and the new additions are struggling with it. But more than anything else, it’s the rotations that have to be installed. Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka have been great in that regard, while everyone else is a step behind.
Welcome Back, Marc Gasol
It was great to see All-World Parade Celebration Master Marc Gasol back in action. He didn’t play extended minutes or put up numbers, but there’s something comforting about seeing him anchor the D. And on offense? Seeing Gasol, with the ball over his head in two hands, making eye contact and using that little head jerk to direct guys? Championship memories! Just a treat to watch.
Even when he anchored a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas, Patrick McCaw and Stanley Johnson lineup in the second half, it was… fine? Would’ve have been even worse without Marc bringing his dad energy, that’s for sure.
Powell may be 6-foot-4 but that height is accompanied by a 6-foot-11 wingspan and the athleticism has been on display often enough to show that this is an area where he can be a greater contributor. He’s performed at a slightly below average mark over his career but the Raptors can’t afford to have two starters with length and athleticism not contributing in that regard.
In fact, a stretch in March last season showed exactly the type of enigma Powell can be at times. After averaging 12.8 points over five games and looking like he was starting to feel it, he put up two straight zero-point games in a combined 34 minutes of action. In the latter, he grabbed 11 rebounds in a seven-point loss to the OKC Thunder while often matched up with Russell Westbrook, who he helped limit to 6-of-20 shooting from the field.
The Raptors are thin at the shooting guard position and the 26-year-old knows that this is as big of an opportunity as he’s ever had to make his mark in the league with no one to really look over his shoulder to. There figure to be enough touches to go around that Powell can be where he needs to be as a scorer, but what of the other facets of his game?
If Powell can add more colour to his repertoire with the rebounding and playmaking aspects, then the Raptors may just have a serviceable starting guard on their hands.
Host William Lou is joined by Michael Grange of Sportsnet to break down the current outlook and the future of the Raptors. Topics include:
- Who will make the starting five?
- Inside scoop on Kyle Lowry’s contract negotiations
- Raptors’ ongoing discussions with Pascal Siakam
- How Lowry’s deal affects Fred VanVleet
- The future of Masai Ujiri
4. Norm Powell heating up:
I’ve always been a Powell want-to-believer.
It only seems right that someone who’s so serious about their craft can have success at it. Powell – as any Raptors fan knows – has had some. He deserves his place in Raptors lore if only for his playoff moments. Three times he’s changed the tone of a series – as a rookie against Indiana; in his second year against Milwaukee and last year against Milwaukee again.
But heading into year five with a ring on his finger and an open spot in the starting lineup where Danny Green used to be, now is the time for Powell to deliver on a consistent basis. What he showed against the Rockets on Thursday was pretty much the total package. He’s looked comfortable shooting the three (5-of-7); made good decisions creating offence for others and was active and aggressive defensively and in the open court.
You can’t expect 22 points on 11 shots every night, but it’s not an anomaly. The key is eliminating the games where he’s lost and confused, or at least minimizing them. You can’t under-estimate the loss of Green, but it’s not outrageous to think with some passable three-point shooting and sound defence, Powell’s ability to push the ball, slash and score makes the Raptors a more dynamic team than they were with Green on the floor.
Toronto’s defence wasn’t particularly sharp for the second game in a row, but was bailed out a bit by some poor outside shooting by Harden and Westbrook, who shot a combined 4-for-19 on three-pointers.
Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker nailed 7 of 15 three-point attempts, though, and the Rockets got up a whopping 64 attempts.
Toronto’s lone draft pick this season, centre Dewan Hernandez, made his debut and acquitted himself well, but is expected to be bound for Raptors 905 for some seasoning after missing an entire season due to NCAA red tape.
Another big man option, Chris Boucher, impressed again and head coach Nick Nurse made it clear afterward that Boucher is putting himself into the mix for some minutes. Nurse also singled out Terence Davis, Malcolm Miller and OShae Brissett as catching his eye. What Nurse didn’t mention is that veteran newcomers Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have had a rough start to their Toronto tenure.
“Plenty of guys there, it’s not easy to weed it out (the rotation) this time of year but that’s part of the reason we play so many guys and limit the minutes of our veterans,” Nurse said.
All in all, he is reasonably content at this early stage, but ready to look ahead too.
“I think our guys that we’ve had around a little bit are rounding into shape. I really like the way Pascal, Norm, Fred look,” Nurse said in summing up the two games.
“OG (Anunoby’s) still trying to get on track, but I thought he made some plays defensively tonight. Gasol just changes a lot of things just with his toughness and his IQ and stuff out there.”
Anunoby appeared to solve a decade-long black hole at small forward for Toronto as a rookie before suffering through an injury and off-court tragedy-marred second campaign that included Anunoby missing the entire playoff run.
But now he’s back and looking as good as ever defensively and more confident in what he can do on offence. That’s exciting head coach Nick Nurse, who has always been a big believer in Anunoby. In the two games here in Japan against Houston, Anunoby probably gave superstar James Harden the most trouble (Harden basically toyed with the other Raptors), something he memorably did as a rookie as well, and Anunoby also showed his passing instincts and a bit more flair on offence.
“He’s not only healthy, but he’s probably in the best condition he’s been in. He’s slimmer,” Nurse said after the second game.
“There’s no health problems. He had just a bunch of all kinds of things just an unfortunate season last year (but) first and foremost he’s got a real knack and a talent on defence,” Nurse said. “He’s big, 6-8, can move with speed, steal the ball. He stepped into a charge tonight. He had two or three deflections and things he knocked away. That’s one way he can help our team is becoming one of our primary defensive stoppers. And then I hope he gets back to shooting the ball like his rookie season,” Nurse said.
“He shot that season at 37%. That’s pretty good.”
Nurse added that while the team is always thinking about the present, there also will be steps taken to make things better in the future. To that end, they will try some things to get Anunoby to continue to expand his game. Nurse said that means giving him the ball more in the open floor, letting him post up a bit, and also face up against opponents.
Anunoby moved his feet, didn’t bite on the fakes or the hesitation dribbles.
Harden made one improbably hard three-pointer over Anunoby on one possession but had to give the ball up on a couple more and the third-year Raptor proved his worth in what eventually turned out to be a 118-111 loss to the Rockets in Tokyo.
“He’s got a real knack and a talent on defence,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Anunoby after the game. “He’s big, he’s 6-8, can move his feet, can steal the ball. He stepped in and took a charge tonight, had two or three deflections and things he knocked away.
“That’s the thing that can certainly impact our team and (help Anunoby) become maybe one of our primary defensive stoppers.”
There is a starting job that would seem to be Anunoby’s to lose and defensive prowess like he showed in two games this week will certainly keep him in the discussion.
His offensive stats were unimpressive — two points, two rebounds, two turnovers in 20 minutes — but he’s going to get a chance to work on that aspect of his game.
“I hope he gets back to shooting the ball like his rookie season, he shot the three at 37 per cent, that’s pretty good,” Nurse said. “When you’re 6-8 and you’ve got (Fred) VanVleet and (Kyle) Lowry and (Pascal) Siakam and those guys creating and it comes out to you, if you can just kind of become a reliable, knock-down three-point shooter then he’d have a good, solid role with us.”
MARC GASOL (Raptors): Nice to see him on the court Thursday in Tokyo playing a solid 18 minutes. He’s had an incredibly busy summer and past season and I think it’s smart to ease him in slowly. It’s all about opening night on Oct. 22 for veterans like him and Kyle Lowry. Slow and steady wins the race.
Given the makeup of the Raptors’ roster, who will milk up as many minutes as possible with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam as the primary attack players, the expectation for any wing playing off-ball with those three is simple: make shots and defend the opposition’s best guard.
Johnson is a safe bet to do the latter. He’s a strong body at 6’7”, maintains a low centre of gravity, and has good footwork for keeping guys in front of him. TooMuchHoops does a nice job highlighting this from the Raptors-Pistons matchup in November of last year. While it was still a time where Toronto was figuring out its balance between Kawhi Leonard and the team offence, it shows Johnson playing some excellent one-on-one defence and even influencing the key turnover at the end of the game.
When you compare him to all the guys I listed above that he’ll be in competition with for minutes, this is Johnson’s differentiating factor. He can soak up bench minutes against the other team’s best scorer, especially if the opposing coach is staggering them in a creative way.
The ideal world for Johnson is that he takes last year’s OG Anunoby role and becomes OG’s everyday backup, ensuring the Raptors have the smallest drop-off in wing defence from starters to bench among upper-tier Eastern Conference Teams.
That would be the case… if we get to the point where Stanley Johnson is good enough on offence to be the everyday guy coming in at small forward.
Basketball at the scale the NBA presents it is performance as much as it is an athletic competition. A crowd of about 20,000 and millions more watching on TV. Because people are solipsistic, and because the action itself is often so absorbing, they are occasionally overtaken by the sense that the game is being staged just for them. (This isn’t stupidity; it is what happens when you’re moved by what an athlete can do with their body.) This goes double for when your favorite team is playing, and what unfolds feels like an intimate dialogue, even though it obviously isn’t. Great athletes who accomplish spectacular feats with your city’s name across their chest become your friends. The relationship is comically thin—they play really well and you make amused noises at them—but the bond is nonetheless surprisingly strong. Sports are like club drugs: they convince you you’re forging a perfect connection with complete strangers.
Vince Carter was the first Toronto Raptor, ever, who made lots of people in Ontario and all across Canada feel close to a basketball player. He belonged to a town that had never before had someone like him to be proud of.
And then he flamed out. Part of the reason we so rapturously celebrate Young Vince Carter is that his next phase was a disappointment. He had some knee problems that reduced his athleticism from generational to exceptional, and he left Toronto on bad terms, checked out and resentful. He peaked at 24. We never got to see his version of Jordan’s first threepeat, LeBron in South Beach, the stage of his career that Giannis is just now entering. Those Nets seasons sucked. By the time we got around to appreciating Vince again, he was 35 years old and a glue guy in Dallas. It was wonderful to watch, but it was an entirely different experience provided by a player whom time had noticeably worn down.
Sam Riches, Canada’s best sportswriter: “I wanted more, just like everyone else. We wanted the Vince that dunked, the beautiful athlete who let us boast, made us prideful just for having seen him do what he did and being able to believe that he did it for us.” Unfortunately, you get whatever athletes are willing to give you, and sometimes less than that, because their bodies betray them in ways they don’t plan for. Vince Carter wasn’t everything Toronto wanted him to be, but he was its first love. Like a lot of first loves, he was both singular and not enough, an uneclipsable unit of measurement unto himself.
The 2019-2020 Toronto Raptors may be the least threatening reigning champions in NBA history.
While they still have Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol, they lost the Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and two phenomenal defenders in Delon Wright and Danny Green.
Expectations remain high, though, as many expect the Raptors will be in the playoffs yet again since the Eastern Conference is still a jumble of just-above-average teams. But for a team like Washington who can’t afford to lose to any conference opponents, these matchups will prove crucial to their playoff hopes. If they have any.
Even without Leonard, the Raptors still have a still relevant All-Star point guard in Lowry. And against Washington last year, he was extremely efficient. Lowry averaged a double-double (19 points, 11.3 assists per game) in the season series against the Wizards. With no Wall to slow him down this season, Lowry could cause even more trouble for the Wizards this season
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