Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t going to sugarcoat it before the ball went up in his club’s exhibition game against the Toronto Raptors. It was the first of three ‘scrimmages’ for both clubs before eight seeding games start Aug. 1, themselves a preamble to the playoffs that will start two weeks after that.
For all the excitement around basketball being back, this was just the start.
“It’s an exhibition game,” D’Antoni said. “And sometimes the intensity is not quite there and not game-like.”
He was correct. The score, which hardly matters, was 94-83 for the Raptors, but most importantly no one got hurt and Raptors’ birthday boy, head coach Nick Nurse, was able to find playing time in the 40-minute session for 15 players — but not Marc Gasol, who was in uniform but had the night off against the undersized Rockets.
Gasol will make his post-hiatus debut on Sunday when the Raptors play Portland. The big Spaniard did have to bury his face in his hands based on some joke Kyle Lowry was riffing on while on the bench the in second half, and what I wouldn’t give to know what that was about.
Anyway. On to takeaways.
1. Serge Ibaka was the Raptors’ star of the pandemic as he kept fans entertained with his ‘How Bored Are You?’ series on social media by posting somewhat relatable (what do you mean you weren’t doing deadlifts in the living room of your condo?) snippets of quarantined life.
Ibaka was in the midst of one of the best years of his career when the NBA went on hiatus, combining high-end three-point shooting with his standard rim-protecting defence, but mixing in a better feel offensively. He’s never looked more fluid and connected with his teammates, has formed a great pick-and-roll partnership with both Lowry and Fred VanVleet and can even put the ball on the floor to score at times too.
Turns out all that didn’t go away after 138 days without a game. Ibaka had 18 points on 10 shots in 17 minutes, including 2-of-3 from deep. Clearly someone has been using their downtime wisely.
“I’ve put in a lot of time [on my three-point shooting] because the game has changed now,” he said on a Zoom call from Walt Disney World Resort. “As a big you have to spread the floor. The better you can shoot threes, the better your teammates are going to be because you open things up for your teammates to drive, pass to guys in the post and then defences have to worry about Pascal in the post, and Kyle, Freddy, OG and they have to worry about me. It just gives us more weapons on offence as a team.”
Ibaka’s role going forward is the closest thing the Raptors have to a ‘controversy’ as they prepare to defend their championship. With Gasol missing 24 games due to injury, Ibaka started and shone. What that will mean now that Gasol is healthy again bears watching. But Ibaka has risen to the challenge. He’ll likely never have Gasol’s quick twitch mind for passing, though his two assists against Houston are evidence that he’s working on that part of his game, too. Ibaka fit in nicely as the Raptors counted 25 assists in 34 made field goals, a ratio Nurse will take every time. But Ibaka’s game has grown and he has made himself invaluable in a number or roles, opening up all kinds of options for Nurse.
“It’s just additional offence, and more confidence,” Ibaka said of his improved ball-moving skill. “This is my 11th year in the league, so of course you get better at understanding the game, and also playing with Marc really motivated me to work on my passing. … That’s something that, every time I’m going to have the ball, that’s my first thought, to look for who’s cutting, who’s open. Then, from there, I’m going to try to make my play.”
2. Playing Houston in your first exhibition game is jumping into deep water. Ever since D’Antoni couldn’t quite close the deal with those influential ‘seven-seconds-or-less’ Phoenix Suns teams led by Steve Nash, he’s kept wanting to push the envelope — more threes, more pace, more basketball played outside of traditional limits. This Houston team is the peak of that.
With their trade of centre Clint Capela in February and acquisition of wing Robert Covington, the biggest player they have in their rotation is six-foot-seven. The floor gets spread, James Harden attacks in isolation or the ball flies around for the next best shot — a three or a layup — and that’s it. The Rockets can’t go big and so opponents have to choose to either make them pay with bigger lineups or match up and go small.
When the Raptors started Serge Ibaka and then brought Chris Boucher in to replace him, it was evident that Nurse wasn’t going to try and roll out his ‘jumbo’ lineup with Gasol and Ibaka together on this night. The good news is the Raptors can play multiple styles.
After falling behind by 12 points with 6:53 gone in the first quarter, the Raptors went small and launched an 18-5 run with a lineup featuring Boucher at centre, OG Anunoby at power forward and Matt Thomas, VanVleet and Norm Powell on the perimeter. It was the main reason the Raptors entered the half tied 49-49, their comeback capped off by a three-point bank shot by Lowry.
3. In general it was a big night for the bench, which outscored their Houston counterparts 41-23. Lowry played just 19 minutes and Anunoby led the first unit in minutes with only 23 as Nurse eased his workhorses back up to speed. But Nurse is looking for things that can help him in the future too, so playing the bench heavy minutes is part of the plan.
“We were pretty restricted with some of the starters’ [minutes] which kind of let that unit play a long time together there, and then it’s time to figure who’s going to contribute, right?” said Nurse. “Come playoff time they probably don’t all get a chance to play.
“…You’ve seen what Pascal, Fred, Serge, Mark, Kyle and those guys do with high-level, high-stress games. I think we’re just trying to keep raising the level of development for those [bench] guys and I would imagine we’re going to continue to play them pretty heavy minutes here for a while.”
4. Take Terrence Davis, for example. He has had a larger-than-expected role during his rookie season in part because injuries have opened up minutes for the undrafted rookie. To his credit, Davis has run with the opportunity every time.
But with everyone healthy he’s in a battle to prove he can change games in the crucible of the post-season. He showed his readiness when he came out with 15 points on nine shots in his 19 minutes to lead the bench.
“The way he played tonight was the way he’s looked the last two or three weeks,” said Nurse. “He’s just been vaulting up and shooting shots in and making plays and scoring and competing. I like [it], I like the level of compete … you certainly see a confidence stride and him, and he’s certainly not afraid to let that thing fly and it’s great for a rookie.”
5. It’s amazing how Powell has been able to play at a super elite level — he’s the only player in the NBA with a True Shooting percentage better than .625 (he’s at a Steph Curry-like .629) and scoring more than 16 points a game in less than 30 minutes a game, despite missing 11 games and then nine games with injuries.
Each time he seemed to come back stronger and as if he hadn’t missed a beat. In his five games prior to the hiatus he averaged 28 points a game on 52.7-per-cent shooting and was the reigning NBA player of the week. No surprise then that he looked as confident and strong as ever against Houston, despite the long break.
He banged down a three early, and earned some praise from Kyle Lowry’s mom on Twitter for a strong take to the rim in the first quarter.
It wasn’t a ‘takeover’ night, but Norm looked like Norm. His corner three with 7:17 left in the game capped a 9-0 run that gave the Raptors an 81-75 lead and then never looked back.
.@pskills43 with the spicy shoulder fake.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 25, 2020
6. It’s probably not fair to even point out, but while the word out of the bubble has consistently been that the practices have been intense and high paced and that the Raptors have worked hard on their conditioning and individual skill work over the course of the pandemic, it was evident early on that not playing high-end competitive basketball since March 9 — a span of nearly 19 weeks — can leave a mark.
Both teams were sloppy, but consider Siakam’s first few minutes in the last few months: He dropped a pass the first time he touched it for a turnover; forced a pass to Ibaka a moment later — turnover; tried again to get it to Ibaka and was charged with another turnover on a James Harden steal. Then he made a nice steal of his own on a Russell Westbrook pass, but threw it away in transition — his fourth turnover in less than three minutes.
Oh well. That’s what the exhibition games — and likely some of the eight seeding games — are for, right? But have no fear, Siakam looked fit and crisp and was attacking off the bounce on his way to 13 points on nine shots in 19 minutes. The polish will come.