It was almost exactly one year ago that the Toronto Raptors opened their 2021-22 season at home against the Washington Wizards. Here was a new, young team returning to Toronto after almost two seasons abroad due to the pandemic, hoping to put on a show for the eager crowd.
Instead, the Raptors trailed 57-37 at halftime and lost 98-83, shooting just 30.9 percent from the field and 20.6 percent from three. More concerning than the results, however, was the lack of effort and execution. The team looked downright shaken to be playing on that stage and were unable to execute anything they worked on all summer, turning the ball over 19 times and fouling the Wizards 21 fouls for 26 free throws. The youth and lack of continuity was obvious.
“I think [emotions played a part in the performance],” head coach Nick Nurse said after that game. “It seemed to me that we weren’t fully engaged and something was there and it probably was that it was a pretty big moment.”
Fred VanVleet was more blunt when he was asked what went wrong, saying: “Everything. Everything… At this point, we’re trying things, a lot of things, and none of it worked out tonight…
“The only thing that I was upset about or that I felt that I let our group down was just: we didn't fight enough. We didn't play hard enough, tough enough, smart enough. And that's the stuff that you can control.”
A year later, the Raptors opened a new season, again at home, this time against the new-look Eastern Conference rival Cleveland Cavaliers, who made a big addition in the offseason, adding Donovan Mitchell to the fold, while the Raptors stood pat. And while the opener is never the be-all, end-all of a new season, it was the first and therefore most important game the Raptors had played since flaming out of the playoffs in April.
As much as the players want to say “it’s just another game,” it was a real test — a test of the work they put in during the summer, and a test of the bet on roster continuity. And this time, unlike a year before, they passed with flying colors.
“It didn't feel anything like last year just around here in general [today],” Nick Nurse said after the Raptors 108-105 win at Scotiabank Arena. “...They were ready. I thought just in general, just their body language and their communication they were having, they were really locked in in the morning prep and as well tonight… there was some really good hard play by us on the floor and diving to tip [loose] balls and things like that. And that, again, still takes you a long way in this league.”
All five starters scored at least 15 points, just like they all averaged last season, with Siakam leading the way with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 4 steals, leading bench groups with limited spacing to solid results by getting to his spots and finishing, including a frenzie in the third quarter when he kept his team in the game by scoring 6 straight points and setting up a Koloko putback for 2 more.
But all 10 guys who played (save for Juancho Hernangomez) chipped in in meaningful ways and with timely moments: O.G. Anunoby had 18-7-5 with 2 steals and 2 blocks, putting in a defensive masterclass against Donovan Mitchell down the stretch of the game; Gary Trent Jr. finished with 19 points on 4-8 from downtown; Fred VanVleet had 15 points, 5 assists and 4 steals; while Scottie Barnes finished with a game-high +20, chipping in 15 points and 11 rebounds while getting better as the game went along.
Even Dalano Banton, Thad Young and Precious Achiuwa had big moments off the bench, particularly on the defensive end, while rookie Christian Koloko was a standout in his Raptors debut, using his 7-foot-1 frame and 7-foot-5 wingspan to matchup with the Cavs’ supersized frontcourt and make things tough for them at the rim.
“I think it was a great experience for him. I don't think he's probably seen a Mobley and Jarrett Allen at the same time before in his playing career. And he played really well,” Nurse said of Koloko. “The best thing I thought he did, he got on the glass but he also got switched off onto some of their perimeter guys and he made them, kept them in front, and challenged with his length and that was a pretty good game for him for a rookie first time out.”
But more than any individual’s play was the maturity that the Raptors displayed and the way they executed down the stretch, especially in comparison to the way they opened last season, which was with mostly the exact same team, albeit now with a season of added experience. After all, Nurse said ahead of the season that “I'm expecting us to be hard to play against… I think we gotta be a team that outplays another team or every team that we’re playing. And that’s what I expect to see.” It was another way of saying that mediocre play wouldn’t be tolerated.
Against the Cavaliers, the Raptors were everywhere defensively — for better or worse, as there are still things to work on when it comes to limiting penetration — forcing 16 turnovers and allowing only 6 offensive rebounds while grabbing 12 themselves (despite being significantly undersized). All night they attacked the paint aggressively, getting to the free-throw line 32 times compared to just 23 for the Cavs. They finished the night outscoring the Cavs 20-7 in fast break points and 18-4 in second-chance points. A real blue-collar night at the office.
OG FROM OUTTA NOWHERE pic.twitter.com/1JOoKW0TLu
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) October 20, 2022
Still, despite playing harder than the Cavs and creating good looks for themselves all night, the Raptors were down for most of the night as they shot just 41.9 percent from the field and saw Mitchell go off for 31 points and 9 assists, because sometimes skill can beat effort.
The Raptors were down 90-85 to start the fourth quarter, but they tied it at 90 a piece after Mitchell took a quick seat on the bench to start the quarter. They reached another gear on both ends of the floor in the all-important final frame, outscoring the Cavs 32-21 in the fourth, including outscoring them by 8 points in the final five minutes of the game.
“Yeah, they did a good job [down the stretch],” Nurse said. “They got to the stuff and they kind of got a little bit of everything out of it, and the spacing was good. I thought we made the right reads on it.”
The starting five was largely responsible for that run and for closing the game on a positive note for the Raptors, and the continuity that Nurse speaks of has to do with the fact that group now has a full season of playing together under their belt, with better role definition and understanding of each other's tendencies to show for it.
“Yeah, that [continuity] would be super important because that group, we know, is going to have to be big in late game situations, and I think it helps that we like we had that same group last year, so we kind of know each other,” Siakam said after the game.
Siakam is being asked to lead this young team to bigger and better things in his seventh NBA season. On opening night, he looked ready for the task at hand, which is to improve on their 48-34 record from last season and to win a round in the playoffs.
A year after the dramatics of opening night getting the best of them, the young Raptors — who added a couple vets but still played six guys aged 25 or younger on Thursday night — looked ready for what is going to be an extremely challenging season; they looked ready for anything that was thrown at them. And it’s only uphill from here.
“It’s the first game of the season, and for me, when I was younger, I think you get really antsy and it's super crazy and feels like a big moment,” Siakam said. “But I think I've been around a little bit, so I kind of understand that it’s one of 82…”
“You want to continue to get better, you know that it's not going to be perfect. And you’ve got to continue to improve.”
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