Amid heavy travel, Raptors show signs of progress in pre-season loss to Bulls

Matt Devlin and Alvin Williams talk about the performance of Toronto's very own Dalano Banton, how well Gary Trent Jr. is playing, and the high hopes for the upcoming season.

Toronto – There aren’t many downsides to being Canada’s team and having communities across the country want to host you and fans from coast-to-coast gobbling up your pricy merchandise.

But one of them is that your pre-season requires some travel. Training camp in Victoria, and exhibition game in Edmonton, another in Montreal at the end of the week and trips to Boston and Houston in between.

It’s been a lot. The Raptors hosted the Chicago Bulls for their lone exhibition game at home on Sunday night -- they lost 115-98 to fall to 2-2 with one more to play -- and had a case to make that they were a little bit road weary, and this before the season starts.

“I would never complain about being Canada’s team but part of it is we’re going to go play these games in other cities in Canada and that causes us to have a heavy travel schedule,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “We still have obligations of playing teams because most of them are in the States and we still have obligations down there once in a while … and the reality is it’s not that easy to get the teams to take a far trip and play us somewhere in Canada. So in return, we have to go return those at some point and that’s just how it lands sometimes.

“It’s been a lot of travel and a lot of late nights already but that’s okay, we’ll be just fine.”

A case of road legs could explain the Raptors woeful three-point shooting through their first three exhibition games. They came into Sunday’s game shooting 25.5 per cent from deep. Take away Gabe Brown, a camp signee, who was 4-of-9 before Sunday and Khem Birch who was 2-of-3 – neither of whom will likely be launching triples for the Raptors when the season starts – and Raptors who will actually be expected to make threes are stumbling along at 22 per cent.

Part of the issue is the Raptors have been plowing through their schedule with a focus on getting as much practice time in as possible, travel issues aside.

"I mean, listen, we've probably done things a lot differently than we would have done in the regular season,” said Nurse. “I mean we really put them through a tough [practice] coming back off the west coast, like a real long physical tough one going into Boston [on Wednesday] because it's training camp mode, … if that was the regular season it wouldn't have looked anything like that [and] we still got some guys trying to get in condition and putting a lot of time and energy and physicality into a lot of the practices and that kind of doubles the effect of it I think.”

The Raptors have another day off Monday and will be home until they make the quick trip to Montreal for Friday’s game, and hopefully some time in their own beds will help. Shooting continues to be a problem for a team that struggled to shoot the ball last year. The Raptors led 57-47 at half but that was mainly on the strength of forcing the Bulls into 16 turnovers through the first two quarters. Toronto was 4-of-15 from deep in the half and 8-of-37 for the game. Shooing that poorly won’t continue and should improve when sharp-shooting free agent Otto Porter Jr. (hamstring) is available, but it’s tough to watch at the moment.

Much more interesting is the battle for the final two guaranteed contracts on the 15-man roster.

Well, check that: after Dalano Banton turned in yet another impressive performance – he’s been the Raptors most consistent player in the pre-season – the rangy guard from Rexdale is all but assured of starting the regular season with his hometown team and having his second-year option picked up.

“I think the big thing is he just looks so comfortable out there, “ said Nurse after Banton chipped in 11 points, five rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes of court time. He’s now shooting 65.5 per cent from the floor, mostly on his trademark swooping drives, but with just enough jump shooting to hint at what the future might hold. “He’s playing at the tempo he wants to play at and I think he's doing a little bit of everything, not only at the offensive end.

“I think he's playing in transition. He's running the team pretty good, He's executing the sets, those kinds of things. But he's really been good at the defensive end, right. He's really noticeable, getting his hands on the basketball and poking it away or reaching in from the weak side or whatever stripping one away. He's done a good job, I think using that length and he also has really good instincts about where the ball is going maybe a little bit ahead of time, right, so he can get his hands on ‘em. So that part's been good to see, his defence and his kind of on and off the ball success.”

Banton credits a busy off-season where played on the Raptors Summer League team in July, scrimmaged with the Raptors against other NBA pros in runs organized by assistant coach Rico Hines in August and they played for Raptors assistant Nate Mitchell for Team Canada at the AmeriCup in September.

“I definitely feel like just confidence-wise, I feel like the guys out there are trusting in me to do what they believe I do well,” said Banton afterwards. “And then definitely the play over the summer – a lot of games through Summer League, playing at Rico and then playing in Brazil with Team Canada. I just feel like a lot of live reps in the summer helped get me going and I’m going to continue running with it. My confidence is there. I feel like with these guys looking for me in my spots, helping me play to my strengths and trusting me and being there for me as a young guy has been great for me and my development.”

If Banton’s spot is looking increasingly secure, it’s a jumble after that, with each of DJ Wilson, Josh Jackson and Gabe Brown having shown well enough to make a case. Still waiting for his chance was Justin Champagnie, the second year forward who had his two-way contract converted at the end of last season but was sidetracked this past summer with a fractured thumb and then has missed the past week – and the Raptors three exhibition games – with a hip strain.

“I think that's really important for him [to perform well in games],” said Nurse. “Because it's not like the other guys haven't piqued some interest. Some of the guys have done some things as well, you know. So you'd like to say, ‘Justin did some good things for us last year, he has been in the system, he had a pretty good summer, his shooting's improving a bit’, you're leaning towards that as part of the [evaluation because] it's a lot of time and investment we've made already.

“But he's got to play because like you guys have seen some of the other guys, all of them really have made a case just about.”

After the Bulls had fought back in the third quarter, making the score 80-77 to start the fourth, Champagnie finally got on the floor. It was neither a smashing success nor a cavalcade of errors. He made a nice play to pick up a loose ball at mid-court – the kind of heads up play he seems to make routinely – and drove the lane and drew a foul, but a moment later he got beat on a cut for a lay-up. He found his way inside on a missed free throw and somehow corralled an offensive rebound that nearly resulted in an extra possession for Toronto, though the ball ended up going out of bounds and back to the Bulls. He forced a drive into the lane and got blocked. Mostly Champagnie looked like he was trying to find his feet in the mishmash of pre-season garbage time after having not played at NBA speed for months.

Helping Champagnie’s cause in particular is that none the players fighting for the final roster spot(s) showed particularly well. The Bulls bench group pulled away from the Raptors on the strength of a 14-3 run midway through the final period.

The Raptors head on the road – naturally – for their final exhibition game this Friday in Montreal. The key rotation players should be better rested after a heavy load through training camp and first part of the exhibition season, and while those in Champagnie’s position will be down to their final chances to make up the Raptors’ minds about their future.

Dalano Banton? He can rest easy. His spot on Canada’s team seems assured.

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