MONTREAL – Exactly what the Toronto Raptors will look like when the regular season opens next Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena will have to wait.
But so far they look pretty darn good.
Any hopes first-year head coach Nick Nurse might have had of getting more looks at the various line-up combination he has at his disposal went out the window when starting point guard Kyle Lowry got tossed from what will likely be the Raptors last full-squad pre-season game early in the third quarter.
You could argue that Lowry getting hot enough to draw consecutive technical fouls while arguing a meaningless foul call is a sign that he’s in regular season form, but maybe an extra few minutes of court time would have been more useful.
Regardless, there was plenty to like as the Raptors key rotation pieces all looked sharp, ready and prepared as they hammered the Nets 118-91. Toronto pulled away from Brooklyn with a dominant third quarter where they held the Nets to just 11 points while reeling off 33 to grab take a 89-70 lead into the final frame.
They were trailing at half 59-56.
Due to an in-arena computer problem there were no stats available for the game but the eye test revealed some impressive play from a range of lineup combinations Nurse has to play with.
He was comfortably able to flip putative starting centres nearly at will. It the first half Serge Ibaka started and looked as fluid and decisive as perhaps he ever has as Raptor, looking comfortable with the extra space he has at centre compared to starting at power-forward alongside Jonas Valanciunas as they did last season.
Twice in the early going Ibaka put the ball on the floor and spun for baskets. He hit a three, and defensively he was a lively, shot-blocking terror while finishing with 13 points.
Does this mean that Valanciunas has been somehow marginalized?
There is no evidence. He looked good running with the second unit in the first half. One sequence where the big Lithuanian sparked a fast break with a smart outlet pass, then hustled down the floor for an early post-up chance before finding a cutting Fred VanVleet stood out — and then helped spark the Raptors third-quarter surge as he ignited the crowd with a triple and generally continued to look active and engaged.
"I’m happy how he’s standing in at the rim, he finally made a three," said Nurse. "He’s playing pretty well and pretty free and easy."
It’s part of Nurse’s strategy to be able to go to any line-up for any situation with roles fluctuating game-to-game or even half-to-half.
"I think there are probably a couple spots pretty solidified and there is a lot of versatility elsewhere," said Nurse before the game. "There’s reasons we are running [various combinations] out there tonight and reasons we are running them out there tomorrow and there will be reasons next Wednesday."
Lowry’s ejection wasn’t considered a big deal.
"I’d certainly much rather see him go out there fighting like heck than I would not caring about a pre-season game or sitting another one out which could happen too," said Nurse of Lowry, who finished with five points.
"He’s going to fire and fight, and that’s who he is, and we’re going to have to manage through some of that stuff, and we love him for who he is, man.”
Lowry was agitated almost from the tip. The ejection was building.
"Anybody with eyes could have seen how that was going," said Fred VanVleet, who had 11 points and three triples. "I think he tried to get thrown out earlier [but the ref] ignored him."
The game was the first the Raptors have played against NBA competition since they were in Utah on Oct. 2 and just their third since training camp opened on Sept. 24. And given than their last pre-season contest is a back-to-back on the road in New Orleans Thursday night that Nurse has already said will be used to rest veterans, it was as close as anyone is going to see of what the new-look Raptors will look like.
Even Lowry, who in his 13th season is comfortable pacing himself at this time of year, said that he was eager to step things up a little bit after not even playing in the second half of a game yet.
"Yeah, we want to get some reps in together. I’ve only played 18 minutes in the first two games I’ve played, so I want to get some more minutes in, some more reps, some more up and down, some more time on the floor," he said before the game and before he was ejected after less than 20 minutes work. "With a short pre-season you have to take at least one or two games to get yourself acclimated and going."
There aren’t many questions in the Raptors’ rotation given they are returning 11 players from a year ago, but that mainly isolates the variables. Defence should travel and the Raptors are showing signs of having a lineup that can stop teams.
"We worked a little on some of the changes, defensively, we’re going to make and turning up the aggressiveness a little bit and we had 14 deflections in the third quarter, which is a humungous number," said Nurse. "That’s one of the things we’re trying to do. We’ve got a team that can be more aggressive and we want to play more aggressive…"
Not that everything is perfect. Second-year wing OG Anunoby was playing his first game having left the team before their first exhibition game due to a personal matter. His play at the Las Vegas Summer League and his work since had generated considerable enthusiasm that he might be ready to make a big leap forward.
Anunoby struggled early – he was scoreless and a bit passive — – and when Nurse jogged the starting lineups to begin the third quarter with the Raptors trailing, he had Siakam in Anunoby’s place with Valanciunas starting at the five where Ibaka had started.
Siakam’s energy paid off instantly in the second half as he finished a pair of fast-breaks with dunks. A three-pointer by Valanciunas brought the house down at a packed Bell Centre and helped Toronto jump out to a 70-62 lead as part of a 13-5 run in the opening four minutes after the half.
By the fourth quarter the blowout was in full force and Anunoby was able to stretch himself out a bit. He knocked a three down in transition and had a sharp steal playing alongside Leonard – who later hit him on a backdoor cut for a dunk — as one Raptors starter was able to stay in the game long enough to get his minutes up.
After that the bench came in en masse which made for a nice moment for Montreal’s Chris Boucher who entered the game with seven minutes left to a sustained standing ovation and a ‘Boucher’ chant. He is battling for what will likely be a two-way contract with the Raptors, a role similar to the one he held with Golden State last season.
On his first defensive possession he broke up an alley-oop attempt, and did it again moments later. In seven minutes he blocked three shots, shot two-of-four from three and had three fouls before he found time to put up one more bomb which went down, turning on the crowd and the Raptors’ bench in equal measure. And then one more dropped. More mayhem.
"I was wating for that," he said. "I was playing at home. I wanted to show I was capable of doing something and for the kids that were watching the people that want to make it, for me it was a special moment to show I’m part of this too."
It got his teammates’ attention, and the coach’s too.
"They were chanting his name, the kid gets to hit a couple of shots, the kid is never going to forget that, man," said Nurse. "Pretty cool."
It was just an exhibition game but for everyone, with the exception of perhaps Lowry, it was a near perfect night.