Tough to say whether Raptors truly changed after season-opening win

Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell (24) shoots over Chicago Bulls guard Denzel Valentine (45) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Thursday, October 19, 2017. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – After the first episode of Extreme Makeover, featuring the Toronto Raptors, we still don’t know much more than we did after the trailer.

Well, we know for sure one thing: The Chicago Bulls are purely in “as is” condition. In an Eastern Conference with as many as six franchises in a race to the basement, the Bulls have a considerable head start.

They are really bad.

So what to make of Toronto’s 117-101 season opening win?

We don’t know if DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will be able to resist the temptation to revert to their ball-dominant selves when the competition heats up because the competition most certainly didn’t heat up on Thursday night at Air Canada Centre.

The Bulls – pegged to struggle before their backup power forward punched their starting power forward in the face in practice, breaking two bones and earning an eight-game suspension – fielded a team with perhaps two legitimate NBA rotation players and a bunch of youngsters with doubtful ceilings.

The Raptors did what they had to do, which was crush them. There was no other option. Toronto went up by 27 late in the second quarter on the strength of a 20-2 run to start the period and it took a 58-37 lead into the half.

The Bulls never threatened to get it below double figures the rest of the game.

Perhaps the only worthwhile takeaway is who was doing the crushing for Toronto.

The Raptors have benefitted from strong bench play for years but have typically rigged it by having Lowry play significant minutes with a second unit bolstered by since departed veterans Cory Joseph (Indiana) and Patrick Patterson (Oklahoma City).

The only problem is the approach pushed up Lowry’s minutes – his per-game average of 37.4 was second in the NBA last year – and in the first year of their three-year $90-million deal with their 31-year-old point guard, figuring out ways to keep him healthy and fresh is more important than ever.

In the pre-season Casey was determined to play the second-unit with Lowry on the bench, handing the reins over to a group of youngsters developed internally and bolstered by 12-year veteran C.J. Miles, the Raptors’ prized off-season acquisition.

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Would he stick with it?

Good thing he did. Raptors starters seemed to have a hard time generating much interest in playing hard against the lowly Bulls and were leading by two when the bench came in.

By the time the starters came back in the game in eight minutes later, it was effectively over. When was the last time the Raptors won in a blowout without Lowry (12 points, nine assists) or DeRozan (nine points, six rebounds, five assists) leading the charge?

Instead a unit featuring duel point guards Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright along with rookie wing OG Anunoby, second-year big man Jakob Poeltl, and Miles tore the Bulls open, pushing the ball aggressively, finding each other in good spots and then watching Miles knock down three increasingly audacious triples and scoring 14 of his game-high 22 points on five shots in eight minutes of first-half court time. He finished 6-of-9 from deep.

Wright had seven points and four assists in the first half and Anunoby showed more flashes of the kind of athleticism and basketball smarts that suggest he could be a legitimate contributor in a rookie season that was supposed to all about him recovering from the knee surgery that ruined his college season and caused him to plummet from the draft lottery to No. 23 where the Raptors seem to be incredibly lucky to have gotten him.

Anunoby finished with 9 points, three rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes in his NBA debut and was his usual deadpan self in his post-game analysis:

“It felt good to play my first game,” he said.

Any different than exhibition season?

“Yeah, there was more people here at this one,” he said.

The Raptors shot 13-of-29 from deep and had 25 assists – not bad for a team that averaged 18.7 helpers last year, last in the NBA.

They played fast, moved the ball, cut hard and made threes – the exact template the grown-up Raptors are supposed to be following but the youngsters have been doing since they got here.

“The second unit has to play that way,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “But if you have the 1-on-1 ability and are a three-time all-star and Olympian [in reference to DeRozan] you’re asking him to do something against his nature, which he’s trying to do for the team, where other guys have to play that way to be effective.

As Fred VanVleet put him before the game:

“We kinda stressed the same things last year about moving the ball and all those types of things. You just add a little bit more three-point shooting in there.

“I think [the new approach] is probably more drastic for Kyle and DeMar and the guys who have been great offensive players their whole careers. Us young guys are kind of just doing what we’re told to do, right? We kind of had to play like that anyway: move the ball, play fast and make quick decisions. We don’t really get to pat the ball and do iso. So it hasn’t been that different for us.”

In fairness, the starters have been doing their best to embrace the new style and in exhibition play proved they are at least interested in trying.

“It’s fine for me,” Lowry said. “I had the opportunity to sit on the bench and watch, cheer, have fun, and get a win. It was a game for me to see what type of things . . . can happen. But every game will be a different game. Next game will be a different game. So maybe I need to shoot more, maybe DeMar will have to shoot more. We’ll have to figure it out.

“But a game like tonight was fun to be a part of, because everyone was involved, and everyone did their job.”

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