Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 134-129 win over the Houston Rockets in the first of two pre-season showcases in Tokyo.
One — First impressions: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left for Los Angeles, Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Marc Gasol (load management) didn’t suit up, but Toronto’s identity was still intact. At the core of it, the Raptors are still a team filled with unselfish, long-limbed athletes that play hard, and that combination wins games in the regular season. The Raptors are deep, they’re young and energetic, and they share the ball. The top-end talent isn’t quite there to win deep in the post-season, but the Raptors should be a lock for the playoffs and be in strong contention for home court in the first round.
Two — As promised: Expectations around Pascal Siakam are already sky-high, but he might just reach them. Siakam was the second-best player on the floor (second to James Harden, who was in peak regular season form) as he finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block in 27 minutes. Siakam operated more from the top of the floor in his new role as the go-to player, as compared to last year where he operated more on the baseline to create space for Leonard, but he was just as effective. Siakam repeatedly got the best of an All-NBA defender in PJ Tucker with his shift post moves, his distribution was top-notch when help defenders swarmed, and Siakam even drained this 30-foot bomb from the top of the floor. The only missing attribute was the midrange game that Siakam spent the summer refining, but given that he was getting to his preferred spots, there was no real reason to force it.
Three — Oozing with confidence: Fred VanVleet is carrying himself with the swagger of a player that won a Finals MVP vote in a series featuring Leonard, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Mr. Bet on Yourself was never short on confidence to begin with, but now it’s on overdrive with a ring on his finger and a clean bill of health. VanVleet’s range looks to have extended three to four feet beyond the three-point arc (which is necessary for a player of his stature) and the time off has done wonders for his quickness, as he repeatedly took his man off the dribble for layups. It remains to be seen if VanVleet can be an efficient finisher, but the funky spin and obtuse angles that he put on his finishes tonight were as impressive as they were creative creative. VanVleet finished with 16 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals while outplaying Russell Westbrook.
Four — A fresh thirty: Gasol and Lowry are easing into the season, but Serge Ibaka is roaring to go. The 30-year-old veteran looked to be the fittest player on the floor for both teams, and he was sharp and decisive with his moves. Ibaka opened the game shooting a perfect 5-of-5 from the field, and settled up with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. The Raptors made more of a point to establish Ibaka in the post, which isn’t and will never be his strength, but he’s as efficient as ever on pick-and-pops and dump-offs around the basket. If Ibaka keeps playing like this, the Raptors might be able to score a first-round pick in a trade deadline move if they choose to move in that direction. Regardless, it’s a testament to Ibaka’s commitment and professionalism that he came into camp with so much hunger and drive even after winning a championship.
Five — Encouraging comeback: There was nothing new that OG Anunoby showed, but it was just good to see him healthy and contributing on both ends. The fantasy of Anunoby making a “Siakam-type leap” is folly, but he doesn’t need to become a premium scorer to be a prominent contributor and to hold down a starting role. Anunoby’s defence was excellent — he even swept his long arms down low to pick off Harden’s crossover as Leonard would have — and he consistently made the right reads on offence. So long as Anunoby can play a 3-and-D role in the mold of Green, it should be considered a win after his miserable sophomore year.
Six — Worst-kept secret: Terence Davis needs polish, but he’s already a rotation-level contributor. The game did not look too fast for Davis in the slightest, which is usually the biggest challenge for rookies. The Raptors are developing Davis as a point guard, which is a new role for him as he had mostly played the two in college, but his distribution Tuesday was on-point as he recorded two assists in his first minute of play. There were certainly moments where Davis was a bit wild, but he made up for it by contributing in other facets like rebounding, securing steals (on one play he stonewalled Westbrook on a drive, which is not easy to say the least), and with his all-out athleticism at the basket. Davis is quickly becoming a fan favourite, and deservedly so.
Seven — Agent of chaos: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson plays basketball like a taxi driver during rush hour. He’s always jutting his way through traffic, he looks like an accident waiting to happen, and yet somehow he gets the job done. There’s nothing pretty at all about his game, but he does seem to thrive in chaos. He gets his hands on every loose ball, and although it looks like sheer madness, Hollis-Jefferson just manages to contribute. You could do a lot worse for an undersized power forward off the bench. His activity level just needs to always be running on overdrive to make up for his total lack of shooting.
Eight — Barely noticeable: Despite his 14 points, Norman Powell was mostly underwhelming. He consistently made poor defensive decisions that left shooters wide open, and he didn’t create anything for his teammates ... Stanley Johnson didn’t play in the first half and only logged seven minutes where he mostly passed up open threes to timidly drive into traffic ... Pat McCaw is indeed a point guard, but only in the sense that he never wants to shoot and will always look to pass it off.
Nine — Noticeably flawed: Matt Thomas can definitely shoot, there is no question about that. But he won’t get more than 10 minutes a game until he can defend. Even career journeymen like Ben McLemore were beating him on straight line drives, as Thomas needed help on almost every trip down the floor.
Ten — Intriguing, but not convinced: There might finally be something there with Chris Boucher, who was excellent in his 18 minutes off the bench. Boucher’s activity level remains excellent and he’s also showing more confidence with the handle as he pushed the pace in transition as he did in Summer League. But the most important development might be his finishing. Boucher is still skinny as Paper Mario, but he does look more authoritative around the basket, and if that trend continues, he might finally carve out a spot as a reserve big.
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