The Toronto Raptors pulled of a 7-point victory over the Indiana Pacers in the inaugural game of the new NBA season. This was a contest that obviously showed that both teams are still ironing out the kinks from the new season. Both the Pacers and Raptors are also implementing brand new offensive schemes and players.
There were 33 combined turnovers (20 from Toronto) and just a lot of weird, empty possessions and overall lack of continuity. The Raptors ended up prevailing at the end, 106-99, after being down by as many as 16 points early in the second quarter. Here are the three things I liked (or didn’t like) about this game.
1. I liked J-Val getting touches and closing out the game
Last season, Jonas Valanciunas was not allowed to close out games. Regardless of his performance in the first three-quarters, he’d often give way to a smaller lineup comprised of Pat Patterson and Amir Johnson.
Combined with an overall lack of touches and offensive plays called at his disposal, it made for a player who lacked confidence and at times, unfairly blamed and criticized for a lack of production.
So when the game started, it was refreshing to see JVal actually getting plays called for him. He was a tough handle in the low block especially for a team that let go of their two best post defenders from last season in Roy Hibbert and David West. JV finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds on 8 of 11 shooting from the floor. JV flashed his patented mid-range game (he made 2 of 5 shots from 10 to 19 feet), that is often follows his weird and robotic pump-fake. But he showed some new wrinkles in his game, including a nice power dropstep, a shoulder shimmy that transitioned into a baby-hook, and superior hands than in the past. JV has been damning when he catches a pass and instead of using his size and taking the ball up straight to the basket, he’ll often bring it back down, gather himself which leads to strips and turnovers. That was barely the case against Indiana.
Best of all, DeMar and Kyle trusted him and continued to feed him down low. Last season, you could’ve counted on two sets of hands the amount of times JV got waved off by the Raptors most ball-dominant players (Lou Williams might’ve been the most egregious perpetrator). That was not the case as DeMar and Kyle were willing and able to let the big man eat. He was by far our best and most efficient player against a weak Pacers frontline.
And when the important late fourth quarter minutes came, Dwane Casey rewarded him for his solid play and staying out of foul trouble. He was only subbed out once within the final 2 minutes of the ball game for defensive purposes and was back right away after Bismack Biyombo fouled out.
Speaking of defense, Casey had JV, for the most part, staying back on pick and rolls, as opposed to the trapping and hedging he had the big Lithuanian executing last season. It meant less over-rotation and better rim protection (Pacers shot 40% from the paint).
Many Raptors fans were disappointed with the way JV’s minutes were handled last season, so it’s encouraging that Casey is recognizing that giving JV at the end of the game will only add to the development of the 23-year old center.
2. I liked the Defensive Intensity
The Pacers as a team shot below 40% (Toronto was 10-1 when they held opposing teams below 40%) and their best players, Paul George and Monta Ellis shot 23 and 27 percent respectively. For George, that can be attributed to rust and only playing his 8th game in the past two season, whereas Ellis is still getting integrated into a new system, but I was impressed with Demarre Carroll’s intensity and ability to stay in front of players. He was also active with deflections and 50-50 balls and helping regain possession when it was lost. Holding Paul George to 4 of 17 shooting is no easy feat.
A defensive 3 was of the biggest priorities this offseason, so of course, it was very concerning when Carroll was lying in agony, holding his rest early in the 2nd quarter. All worries were for not as he ended up returning back to game action shortly thereafter.
Overall, the rotation were crisp, the communication was better and the rim protection, a huge issue last year, was much better.
I mentioned already that JV’s usage in pick and roll defensive situations against Indiana, was a considerable improvement in how his skills would be deployed, while also hiding his deficiencies. That strategy gave up mid-range shots in which the Pacers converted only 5 of 26 shots (19 percent).
Bismack Biyombo is going to terrorize teams in the paint. He was only credited with one block, but there were numerous occasions where he either caused a tie up, or used his athleticism to alter shots.
3. I didn’t like the Offensive inefficiency
If you know me, I am notoriously very hard on DeMar DeRozan for reasons mostly within his control. He’s an inefficient offensive player, in love with long-two’s. And he has a tendency to over dribble, over-drive and settle for fadeaway jumpers with a hand draped all over his face. I cannot understand why he feels the need to make shots more difficult than they already are.
DeMar started 3 of 9 while operating in his typical shot wasting manner. He finished 7 of 17 with 25 points but was again bailed out by 15 free throws to make his final point output much better than it seemed.
He was at least a willing passer and finished with 6 assists. He found cutters in the half court offense, as player movement needs to be a point of emphasis for the Raptors.
Still, despite being only the first game of the season, many of the concerns that Raptor fans had with DeRozan are already resurfacing. Yes, he made a big fall-away shot against elite defender Paul George in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, but if the best player you can draw up out of a timeout is DeRozan doing two behind the back dribbles that transition into a tough fadeaway against one of the top 10 perimeter defenders in the league, the percentages suggest you will fail more so than succeed.
Outside of DeRozan, I thought Carroll had trouble adjusting with a lack of ball movement. Michael Grange had a great stat that said that 99% of Carroll’s 3pt makes were assisted. Carroll is not a pull-up jump shooter. He excels at movement and slashing. There were instances where he was getting out of his comfort zone. That’s the caveat to having a player like DeRozan who freestyles too frequently. It stagnates the offense, renders player movement useless, and players take matters into their own hands when the game flow breaks.
This will continue to be a concern for the team, I believe, until Casey stops giving DeRozan the free reign to shoot at will (in other words, Casey will need to be fired).
Other game notes
- Corey Joseph clearly looked tentative, which is normal in his first game with completely new teammates. The two point guard lineup, with DeMar at the 3, Carroll as the stretch 4 and JV at the 5 was the second most used lineup and was a +11.
- Obviously, it is waayyyyy too early to determine which lineups are optimal, but I know Raptor fans who lived through the Calderon, T.J. Ford days, Lowry, Calderon and Lowry, Vasquez know that when they see a two point guard lineup, they cringe. Casey, for some strange reason, always gets aroused at the thought of playing to point guards, despite its defensive deficiencies. It will be curious to see if the matchup (George Hill and Monta Ellis, as starters are essentially a two point guard lineup due to size) dictated Casey going small in the backcourt, or if it is a prediction of things to come. Hopefully it is the former.
- Terrance Ross fouled twice very early and couldn’t really get back into the game. Just an awful start for him…
- More Luis Scola please! I know he had 4 fouls in 17 minutes with 4 turnovers. His rebounding was key during the Raptors early first quarter struggles. Even with only one assist, he was actively trying to create offense from the elbows. I’m not worried about Scola’s potential contributions offensively, but I am not sold with him as a starter.
- Patrick Patterson finally realized the offseason was over and made some long-distance shots (2 of 5 from 3-point). His shooting is desperately needed and I think Casey is waiting for him to heat up in order to insert him back into the starting lineup.
Toronto travels to Boston next on Halloween eve.