These early season games will come back to matter.
Take last year, for example. The Toronto Raptors started the season 9-13, losing winnable games early as they sought to find an identity and work into a groove. At the end of the season, he came back to haunt them, finishing just three games shy of the conference’s second seed before falling in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers.
This year, the Raptors have taken care of business to open the year. In an early-season game against the new Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors found their offensive rhythm late, turning a terrible shooting performance into a 32-point fourth quarter en route to a 108-105 win at Scotiabank Arena.
“It was nothing like last year here in general,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “They were ready. I thought in general, just their body language and the communication they had, they were really locked in the preparation in the morning and also tonight.”
It wasn’t perfect though. Donovan Mitchell looked borderline unstoppable for periods in the third quarter and defensive lapses allowed the Cavaliers to take an eight-point lead as the Raptors’ offense went silent. But while the half-court offense struggled predictably, Toronto made the most of transition opportunities.
Four three-pointers to open the fourth quarter opened the door for a Raptors comeback before OG Anunoby found Scottie Barnes under the basket for a quick chance to put Toronto in place for good with just over three minutes and half to do.
“Opening night last year, I don’t think it went very well, we lost that game,” Scottie Barnes said as he reflected on Toronto’s 15-point loss to the Washington Wizards. to open last season. “Get a W to start this season so things are different. I would say our continuity this game and the way things have gone, I feel like it’s gone really well.”
Siakam launches All-NBA campaign
Pascal Siakam has made it clear he wants to be a top five player in the league this season and his All-NBA campaign certainly got off to a good start on Wednesday night. He was Toronto’s only reliable scorer throughout, guarding the Raptors’ offense in the second quarter while everyone was quiet.
He attacked Caris LeVert several times, beating him with a pair of spinning moves before backing up and nailing a jumper in the second quarter. In the fourth, he went to LeVert again, intimidating him for clutch scoops on the stretch en route to a 23-point, 11-rebound performance before committing a foul with 16 seconds left in regulation.
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Koloko sees early action
The biggest upset of the night game came midway through the first quarter when rookie second-round pick Christian Koloko headed to the scorer’s table to check in. He immediately made a difference for Toronto, using his size to clog the paint and slow down Cleveland’s undersized guards. At one point in the third quarter, he even got out of the perimeter holding his own against the crafty LeVert who couldn’t get away from the 7-foot-1 Koloko, eventually setting up a contested mid-range jumper.
Most notable, however, was how the Raptors used Koloko on the offensive end. They repeatedly performed pick-and-rolls with Koloko setting screens to release VanVleet. When the Cavaliers bigs sagged too much, VanVleet went into a deep pull-up or found outside shooters when Cleveland started spinning. Pick-and-roll usage is in stark contrast to last season when the Raptors picked-and-rolled on just 18.4 percent of their games, the third-fewest in the NBA.
“These could have been our first pick-and-rolls since UCLA this summer,” VanVleet said. “We don’t have a lot of pick-and-roll these days. So when we get them, we have to find the rhythm and the flow. Just having a traditional five, screen-and-roll, is refreshing.”
Koloko’s first career bucket in the regular season came on a free throw after he was fouled by Jarrett Allen as he contested an offensive rebound. He followed up two quarters later with a dunk returned for his first career basket.
“I think he’s going to be important for us and I think – yeah, he just has to stay focused and figure out what we want from him,” Siakam said of Koloko. “He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes – I mean, obviously he’s going to make mistakes, he’s a rookie – but, he’s pretty smart, and yeah, he’s going to help us, I think.”
Chat about starting lineup and rotation
Toronto went with the usual suspects to open the game as planned. Raptors coach Nick Nurse said he was seriously considering making a switch, presumably by trading Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa, but ultimately decided to keep Trent in the first group.
Precious Achiuwa was the first to register on the bench in the first half but was replaced by Koloko as the first substitute in the second half. Toronto then deployed Dalano Banton, Thad Young and Juancho Hernangomez to subsequent groups. Malachi Flynn and Justin Champagnie did not play.
“I think Dalano showed a lot of confidence,” Nurse said of Banton. “He was really good defensively. He really had a defensive impact.”
highlight of the night
Anunoby had a slow start Wednesday but woke up late with 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of crucial three-pointers. His highlight of the night, however, came courtesy of his pursuit block of LeVert in the third quarter.
Next: Brooklyn Nets
The Raptors will have the day off to practice before heading to Brooklyn to face Kevin Durant and the Nets Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET.