Raptors net good early returns from new strategy


TORONTO – With a little under 10 minutes to play the second quarter in Monday’s Toronto Raptors pre-season opener, Dalano Banton came up with a loose-ball rebound underneath the basket and immediately took off.

Head up and moving with a head full of steam, the Toronto native took three decisive dribbles before delivering a dart of a one-handed push pass to a cutting Scottie Barnes.

The pass sailed a little errant, forcing Barnes to awkwardly catch it while drifting underneath the basket, but he didn’t panic, took a dribble towards the right corner and then dropped a one-handed dime to Yuta Watanabe, who smartly came trailing in full force right towards the bucket where he received the pass and flushed the ball home without taking a dribble.

This sequence was part of a 15-3 run to open the second quarter, blowing the game open as the Raptors cruised to a 123-107 victory over the visiting Philadelphia 76ers.

It was also a pretty good indicator of the style of game the Raptors might be looking to play this season when the games start to become real.

This is a team that’s likely going to want to play fast.

Last season, Toronto averaged 99.57 possessions per game, good for 14th in the league. During Monday’s contest, however, the Raptors significantly upped that pace by racking up 107.5 possessions, about eight full possessions more than what they averaged last season.

Of course one game – let alone a pre-season game – doesn’t make for much of a sample size, but given all the length, athleticism and relative youth this Raptors squad could potentially flash, getting out and running would make a lot of sense as a tactic to match the personnel.

This isn’t to say that the Raptors young guns like Banton and Barnes have just been given license to run with no real plan, however. Plays like the one that led to that Watanabe dunk in the second quarter of Monday’s game don’t just materialize out of nothing, after all.

“I know it looks like it’s just running around, but there is a lot thought and design and stuff put into it,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after his team practiced Tuesday. “It’s another thing somebody asked me about the tape from last night. I saw that moving all those positions around was confusing them in transition defence. Like they were back when all of a sudden they were plugged the middle one time and all of a sudden they were running the corner and the next time they were guarding the ball.

“We were creating a lot of stuff because of the running around.”

Not everything all that running created was necessarily a good thing, however.

The Raptors committed 22 turnovers leading to 27 Philadelphia points, and a lot of it could be attributed to the Helter Skelter style the Raptors were playing.

Optically, it wasn’t a great look but it is still just pre-season and, according to Nurse, the high turnover numbers might not mean much when put into context of how many possessions the Raptors had on Monday.

“I think that increased pace and increased possessions will obviously lead to higher turnover numbers, but I think it’s another one of those stats that if you want to keep living in 1975 where if you just keep looking at the total number of points regardless of possession, the total rebounds or total turnovers, it’s all relative to the possessions in the game.”

But while the turnovers aren’t quite as concerning to Nurse with what appeared to be an increased pace of play from his team, rebounding might be an area he’ll look at to slow things down a touch. While he sees benefits in playing fast on the offensive glass, cleaning up the defensive boards may prove to be tough if too many guys are leaking out looking for an outlet pass.

Still, it’s not as if the Raptors are asking their players to slow down and have apparently been making pushing the pace a point of emphasis with a lot of their young players.

In Banton’s case, he’s been working with new Raptors assistant coach, and former 13-year veteran NBA point guard, Earl Watson since around the time of Summer League with a particular focus on playing with pace.

“He’s been a great help for me since the day we connected and have been together,” said Banton of Watson. “Him just helping me change my game and play with that pace every possession since I came in, that was the main thing he’s been preaching to me, to play with pace, play up and down rather than side to side. That’s what’s going to help me be successful.”

Added Nurse of the work Watson has done with Banton so far: “I think the noticeable improvement in Dalano’s game from since we got him to now can be accredited to Earl.”

Watson figures to be an important assistant on Nurse’s staff because it looks like he’ll be working with all of the Raptors point guards – Banton, Fred VanVleet, Goran Dragic and Malachi Flynn.

And by the sound of things, it would seem that Flynn will need to put in more work with Watson to get him to play at the pace the Raptors want to be at.

“He’s got to get a little more aggressive up the floor,” Nurse said of Flynn. “He tends to be a little safer and kind of wait for the developing play. In doing that, the defence is also going to get set. So we’re gonna try to get him to go a little faster and we’ve got to get him to go off the ball.

“The three point guards, Freddy, Malachi – the true, true point guards – and Goran all are really good spot-up shooters. So we’re trying to get them to get up the floor and get off the ball and just sit there and get those kick outs from Scottie and OG (Anunoby) and Pascal (Siakam) and Precious (Achiuwa) and all that stuff because we think that puts a lot of pressure and gets them great faced-up, catch-and-shoot threes which they need.”

And in order to get Flynn and those other Raptors guards those kind of looks, it would make sense to assume that this team needs to play fast.

Just not out-of-control fast, of course.

“We’re not out kicking the ball out and going and sitting in the bleachers and having a cup of coffee during practice, right? We’re trying to organize it and we’re trying to make it difficult and it’s a little different, and it’s pretty experimental at this point so we’ll see where it goes,” said Nurse.

There’s plenty more data needed on this particular experiment before we can pass judgment on it, but so far the results of pushing the pace look to have plenty of benefits for the Raptors to reap from it.