Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 130-122 overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Opening Night.
One — Scenes: It was a night to remember for the defending champions, who gritted out a hard-fought victory in overtime. The ring ceremony gave the city one last excuse to gather and celebrate the 2019 championship. Masai Ujiri raised a diamond-encrusted fist to the sky to the tune of “MVP” chants. The crowed roared for Nick Nurse. Serge Ibaka shadow boxed the camera. Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Pascal Siakam couldn’t stop cheesing. And finally, Kyle Lowry emerged, pointed to the sky, called for a five-count, and the Raptors’ first-ever banner was unveiled. It was a gratuitous celebration and a worthy battle to follow.
Two — Worth every penny: There was no shortage of sticker shock when Pascal Siakam signed his $130-million maximum extension last weekend, but all the hand-wringing looks ridiculous. Siakam looked every bit like an elite player as he posted 34 points, grabbed 18 rebounds, and dished out five assists in 38 minutes. He delivered everything that was asked of him — Siakam was unstoppable in the post, he knocked down a fair share of threes, he was relentless around the rim, he created for his teammates, and he delivered in the clutch. The only times he didn’t look like a max player was when the officials slapped him with two dubious fouls to knock him out of the fourth quarter. On the fifth foul, Kendrich Williams kicked out his leg to earn three free throws. Moments later, officials fell for JJ Redick’s shameless flop for Siakam’s sixth.
Three — Breakout candidate: Fred VanVleet matched Siakam every step of the way en route to a career-high 34 points in the season opener. VanVleet was the sharpest Raptor in preseason, so it’s no surprise that his play carried over. In addition to improving his range, the biggest improvement in VanVleet’s game is the finishing. VanVleet was Kyrie-esque with some of his layups in traffic and he consistently finished over bigger defenders. That subtle craftiness of using his off-arm to disarm defenders and the creativity to convert from tight angles was always there for VavnVleet, but the burst on his first step is new.
Four — As clutch as he is tough: VanVleet crashed into a cameraman (for the love of god, can they please move back?) and was briefly taken to the locker room. When he returned, VanVleet was noticeably slowed by a bad ankle, and so he wasn’t as assertive with his offense. However, that didn’t deter Nurse from calling a gorgeous hammer play for VanVleet in the final minute of regulation to tie the game, in which VanVleet snuck behind a pin-down from Marc Gasol on the weak side before cooly converting the corner triple.
Beautiful hammer action to tie the game... gasol with the great screen pic.twitter.com/rBT5RPeYBe— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) October 23, 2019
Five — Unimaginative: Nurse had a chance to shine at the end of regulation, but he played it safe. With nine seconds left in a tie game, Nurse called a clearout for Norman Powell, who promptly drained the clock by dribbling in place before hoisting a 30-foot bomb that came nowhere close to the net. Granted, Nurse’s options were limited as VanVleet was banged up and Siakam had fouled out, but how the Raptors generate crunch-time offense is an open question. There’s no obvious shot creator against a set defense, and so Nurse should avoid isolations as much as possible. The Raptors are most dangerous when they attack as a pack.
Six — Ugly, but heroic: This was by no means a pretty game from Kyle Lowry, but he was effective nevertheless. Lowry generated just enough junk offense — mostly on his patented bum-rush drives to draw contact — before putting the game on ice with a pull-up three over Jrue Holiday. Admittedly, his jumper is a concern as Lowry shot 3-of-11 with some bad misses, but today those shots dropped when it counted. Lowry admitted during Media Day that he is a month behind in his conditioning, and he is still rusty after undergoing thumb surgery. But this is also just a fixture of the Lowry experience nowadays. Sometimes he’s the old Lowry, and sometimes he can’t buy a basket.
Seven — Unheralded: OG Anunoby was the unsung hero in tonight’s game, as he was Toronto’s best player on defense. Anunoby kept a tight lid on Holiday, and delivered three clutch defensive sequences when the Raptors needed it most. Down the stretch of the fourth quarter, Anunoby made two timely rotations to first swat a layup at the basket, and then to coax a charge on the rolling big. Anunoby then shut down Holiday on the Pelicans’ last play of regulation, as he stuck with Holiday on his first drive and forced a bailout pass before denying him again when the play reset to Holiday. Anunoby also chipped in with 11 points, including a spinning drive for a layup, and a timely cut down the lane to bail Siakam out of a double-team.
Eight — Concern brewing: Marc Gasol is a solid veteran who will eventually find his rhythm, but this was an awful showing from the 34-year-old. Gasol was slow as molasses on both ends of the floor, and was stuck on one basket (that being a lucky banked-in three) and just two rebounds for all of regulation. Gasol did eventually contribute in overtime, but it’s clear that he could use some more rest. If he’s going to be this lumbering, then Serge Ibaka should be playing the bulk of minutes until Gasol gets up to speed, and those dual-centers lineups should be deployed sparingly.
Nine — Exhaustion: Nurse kept his rotation to a tight eight players, as it was the seven returning champions plus rookie Terence Davis providing a boost in limited minutes. It’s an understandable decision given that the newcomers just aren’t up to standard as of yet (and might not be competent in general) but it’s not a sustainable formula in the long run. Lowry shouldn’t be logging 45 minutes at his big age, nor should VanVleet log 44 on a bum ankle. Nurse must find at least one more player to lean on. For my money, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should get the first look as a backup power forward once he’s fully fit.
Ten — New wrinkle: Starting this season, coaches will have one challenge to review plays. If successful, that challenge can be used again. At the moment, it doesn’t seem as if there is much of a strategy to deploying the challenge, and this will be something that Nurse and other coaches in the league will gradually refine. Nurse expended his in the first quarter on a block-charge call that was unsuccessful. There’s logic in using it early, so that the challenge might be used repeatedly, but there’s also a case for coaches to keep them for crunch time when plays matter more.