TORONTO — There were so many reasons to be optimistic, to believe that the shadows left by the way the Toronto Raptors finished last season would quickly recede once the ball went up on this one.
The white T-shirts were laid out so neatly, giving the game a playoff like feel. The new scoreboard and sound system provide the requisite sensory overload.
There were Cory Joseph and Anthony Bennett, two local kids who grew up as part of the Raptors first generation, bouncing around on the floor of the Air Canada Centre before their game, completing the long journey from the Sprite Zone to centre court.
And then the game started and for a long, concerning stretch the new-look Raptors looked every inch the old-look Raptors, the ones who got swept by the Washington Wizards. The ones who took most of March and April off last season.
“We were timid, we just didn’t know what we were doing,” said Kyle Lowry. “We knew what we were doing, we just didn’t execute the right way.”
It was disconcerting. Remember when the Wizards played small ball and the Raptors looked lost? The Pacers played small ball and the Raptors looked lost.
Centrepiece free agent DeMarre Carroll was being asked to dribble to create his own shot, and it wasn’t pretty. Terrence Ross remained Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan missed lots of awkward, forced, shots.
But no need to panic, right? The Raptors didn’t.
Slowly from the ashes of a smoking crater of a first half, the Raptors pulled themselves up and out of a hole of their own making to earn a 106-99 win over the Indiana Pacers, turning a 16-point deficit midway through the second quarter into a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Raptors cut the Pacers’ lead to eight at the half and four after three quarters and briefly seemed poised to pull away after Ross knocked down a three while being fouled and converted the four-point play to give Toronto a 76-68 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But the Raptors were never quite able to put away the Pacers. As the game tightened Raptors head coach Dwane Casey proved that he’s willing to adapt, as he went with Jonas Valanciunas — absent for most fourth-quarter minutes last season — down the stretch and two point guards, with Joseph in the backcourt with Kyle Lowry and Carroll as the power forward.
The Pacers kept coming with Paul George tying the score 93-93 with 2:42 left. It got dicier still, but DeRozan helped the cause by scoring seven of his game-high 25 points in the last 1:29, including an especially difficult contested mid-range jumper – his specialty, in other words – with 50 seconds left that helped ice the game.
In the end there were all kinds of echoes from last season. DeRozan won the game by resorting to isolation ball. Lowry added 23 on 17 shots, and Patrick Patterson chipped in with some timely shooting off the bench.
So how to assess? It was like Toronto used the first half to ring every alarm bell possible with regard to concerns you could conceivably have about the newly assembled roster (Will the ball move enough? What about the three-point shooting? How will the second unit score?) and silenced them — sort of, anyway — one by one.
With the new faces and the new points of emphasis and the new schemes, perhaps there should have been a greater expectation for things to get off to a less-than-ideal start. Optimism can only take you so far. Even after a month of training camp and exhibition play, the Raptors are still an unfinished product.
“It’s still coming together,” said DeRozan before the game. “We haven’t gone through the rough times that really pulls you together. It’s when you’re going through the rough times with a group of guys that you really understand who you are, that’s the key part. Everyone can be friends when everything is going well, it’s how you pull things together when times are tough.”
He was clearly taking a big-picture view, but he could have been talking about the first half, and there were signs that the ragged first 24 minutes when the Raptors couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. You could picture friendships fraying at half time.
If you were trying to design the worst possible first 12 minutes of the 2015-16 season you couldn’t have come up with something as ugly as the first quarter.
There was the score: the Raptors trailed 30-20. There was how the score got that way: the Raptors turned the ball over six times, shot just 33.3 per cent from the floor, from the three-point line and from the free-throw line, which you don’t see often. Their spacing was a disaster, with Valanciunas, Luis Scola and DeRozan all crowding each other in the paint and they got out-rebounded, too. Ross, who is being counted on to provide offence on the second unit after the departures of Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez, picked up three fouls in less than three minutes of floor time, missing his only three.
Oh, and late in the period Carroll hit the floor hard after driving the basket and rolled around for a time before heading straight to the locker room holding his left arm tenderly. He said after the game he thought he might have broken something.
Given that 99 per cent of his three-pointers with the pass-happy Atlanta Hawks were assisted and the ball was sticking like the Raptors were playing the Washington Wizards, the thought occurred: maybe he’s looking for a way out or his five-year, $65-million contract?
No, that would be crazy.
Things improved marginally in the second quarter. Carroll returned, having only suffered a bruised left elbow. He provided one of the first half’s few bright spots as he blanketed George, who is in the early stages of a comeback from a broken leg suffered in the summer of 2014 that cost him nearly all of last season. George might be rusty but Carroll held him to 1-of-8 shooting in the first half and 4-of-17 on the game, signalling the impact he was brought in to have.
“He’s an elite defender. He’s all-defensive team calibre player,” said Lowry.
But you can’t win on defence alone, and while Casey predicted that his team’s offence would be behind their defence early he doesn’t want it to stay that way.
“To win in this league you need balance,” said Casey in the lead up to the opener. “ You need to make the three-point shot, you have to run and you need to defend. To get that balance is the key to our success this year.”
And there were signs in the third quarter that halftime had served to rejuvenate. Scola, who started at the power-forward spot, took the ball on the block, drew an extra defender and snapped a pass to a wide-open Carroll for a triple. A moment later Carroll had a good look but zipped it to DeRozan for a wide-open corner three.
And then the second unit hit its stride later in the third, helping extending the advantage. Patrick Patterson looked comfortable as the designated floor stretcher alongside Joseph as he drilled a three in transition that gave the Raptors their first lead, and then a baseline jumper to extend the lead.
“We came in after the first half, got focused,” said Patterson. “That first half, that first game of the season, we were shaking off the cobwebs.”
It looked nothing like the first half. It looked like progress.