The Toronto Raptors started the season as NBA defending champions with a 134-129 win over the Houston Rockets in the first of two exhibition games in Tokyo early Tuesday morning. Their second game goes Thursday. Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Marc Gasol (rest) didn’t play, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to see for basketball starved eyes. Some takeaways:
• Pascal Siakam is seeking a max contract extension from the Raptors in wake of his breakout third season that saw him earn Most Improved Player honours. The Raptors have until the eve of the regular season to reach an agreement on a deal, but don’t really have any urgency to do anything. Their motivation might be to sign Siakam to a contract at some kind of modest discount – even in early negotiations the sides aren’t that far apart – but the multi-skilled forward would be a restricted free agent next summer and the Raptors could “max” him then. There is no real risk of losing the player, only potentially pissing him off.
In the meantime, all Siakam can do is play. And with all the caveats about it’s only pre-season and blah, blah, blah – the fourth-year forward looked fantastic. His task as a primary option will be to maintain all the things that got him this far: floor-running, defensive energy and the ability to score around the rim, while adding better passing, continuing to show a growing three-point threat and perhaps some in-between game too. Siakam showed every element of that, putting up an effortless 24 points and 11 rebounds as well as four assists. The turnover totals – five – will bear watching, but it doesn’t look like Siakam is going to be taking any steps back this coming season.
• James Harden remains good. Great actually. A marvel. Game 1 of the exhibition season is not Game 6 of the NBA Finals and the Raptors defensive intensity was – presumably – several notches below regular-season levels, let alone playoff standards. But watching Harden routinely ghost high-end NBA defenders of all shapes and sizes is an absolute treat. He doesn’t need to get up to top speed or slam on the brakes or seemingly do anything – it’s a few rhythm dribbles, a hesitation, crossover or both, and he’s gone, blowing past the first layer of defence and into the lane where he finishes incredibly difficult runners with ease. Or else he just bombs a three from wherever.
Harden had 15 of the Rockets’ first 30 points and that was before he nutmegged Raptors forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on his way to an and-one. Rude. Harden had 34 points in 27 minutes on 14 shots and it was hard to tell if he was trying or not.
• Two years ago, the Raptors won 59 games in large part because they had the most effective second unit in the NBA. Last season – in the playoffs, especially – it was about using their best six or seven players as a sledgehammer to beat down opponents over and over again. It only makes sense that with the loss of two starters – Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green – depth will have to be part of the Raptors’ arsenal again.
It was interesting then that the guts of the Raptors’ comeback in the second half from a 17-point hole was accomplished by players who either figure to be part of the Raptors’ bench unit or who are fighting to be part of it. Hollis-Jefferson had his hands on everything and it’s pretty evident that Matt Thomas will find ways to score. Terrence Davis II is a big, athletic guard that went undrafted, but looks like he has NBA tools, and it was interesting to see Malcolm Miller, who has always had injuries derail him at the worst moments, chip in nine points in the final moments to seal the Raptors’ win. If the Raptors don’t keep the rangy three-and-D threat, another NBA team will be happy to have him. Meanwhile, the battle to be part of the Raptors’ new bench mob figures to be intense.
• It has become fashionable to dump on the Rockets whose primary sin in the Mike D’Antoni-Harden era has been failing to close out the dynastic Golden State Warriors even while casually dismantling the rest of the league. An overlooked element of adding Russell Westbrook will be the terror he wreaks against opposing teams’ second units. Westbrook is too fast and plays too hard for most primary defensive lineups, so he figures to overwhelm bench groups when he runs the show while Harden sits. The key will be what he and Harden can do together, but there were some early signs of Westbrook being active as an off-ball cutter or creating for Harden – his fellow former MVP – that has to be encouraging for Houston. The Rockets will be a factor, it says here.
• Perhaps the most exciting developments of the day in Tokyo – at least for fans of the intermingling of sports and massive geopolitical forces – was NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s pre-game media availability when he was peppered with questions about the seemingly deepening quagmire the league finds itself in with regard to the Chinese government.
A since-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong angered China, prompting several entities to suspend or break off ties with the Rockets – the NBA’s virtual “official” team in China thanks to its relationship with former Rocket and Hall of Famer Yao Ming.
Silver put out a lukewarm statement that tried to defend Morey’s right to voice his opinion while apologizing if any offence was taken. At home, Silver in turn was widely criticized for apologizing at all, given China’s human rights record and the league’s proud stance in favour of free speech and progressive causes. And regardless, China didn’t seem impressed that Silver spoke up for Morey and doubled down, suspending broadcast of an exhibition game in Shanghai next week between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, among other developments.
Silver, in turn, pledged to support the right of the league and team employees to speak their minds, while acknowledging “As part of our core values, tolerance is one of those as well. I think tolerance for differing societies’ approaches, tolerance for differing points of view and the ability to listen,” said Silver before the game. “Certainly I don’t come here, either as the commissioner of the NBA or as an American, to tell others how they should run their government … I think, though, at the end of the day, I am an American, and there are these values that are deeply rooted in the DNA of the NBA, and that includes freedom of expression for our employees.”
From one tweet to a geopolitical incident. Only in the NBA.