EDMONTON – They like them. They really like them.
After a week spent in Western Canada – first in Victoria where the Toronto Raptors held training camp and now in Alberta where they hosted the Utah Jazz in their first exhibition game Sunday evening – it’s safe to say the enthusiasm for Canada’s lone NBA team extends well beyond the boundaries of the GTA or Southern Ontario.
This isn’t breaking news – exploding TV ratings and the proliferation of Jurassic Parks across the country during the Raptors' championship run in 2019 made the case pretty convincing.
But it’s still interesting to get a flavour of it in person. The crowd at the intrasquad scrimmage in Victoria was as loud and enthusiastic as possible for the type of event it was – a live practice with a bit of goodwill and community building baked in.
In Edmonton, Rogers Place was jammed to the rafters, and it seemed like everyone in the building was wearing official team merchandise. A playoff worthy ‘let’s go Raptors’ chant broke out before the ball went up and every Raptors basket from the opening tip to the final horn was greeted like it meant something.
“The atmosphere [was] unbelievable man. It blows me away every time we get to come to these different places that don’t get to see us as much,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.
“Edmonton was amazing. You look up to the rafters and it felt like people were hanging from the ceiling. It was just electric. From the moment we checked in the hotel yesterday it was rock-star treatment and hopefully we put on a good show for them. It was just special but it shows the Raptor brand and just how big we have grown and what we mean to the people and what the game means, what the team means being Canada’s team right now.”
Otherwise, what to glean from what turned out to be a 114-82 blowout?
Well, not all that much. Nurse had said beforehand that the game would be light on minutes for starters and heavy on opportunities for those in the middle of his rotation.
The starters turned it over a lot and looked a little rusty – Pascal Siakam was 1-of-6 in the first quarter with four giveaways all on his own. But Scottie Barnes looks like he’s ready to pick up where his rookie-of-the-year season left off as he had eight points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 17:31 of floor time.
Precious Achiuwa looked quick off the dribble, and calm and collected in transition, suggesting he’s not about to regress to the early-season awkwardness he started with early last season. He led all Raptors scorers in the first half with 10 before sitting for the second half.
“He looks confident when he has the ball,” said Nurse.
“He’s trying to use some of the force that he has. I thought he made quick-decision shots on the perimeter. That’s it. I think he should look to attack because he’s got the ability and great size and strength to do it. And if it comes around, just take it because he’s a pretty good shooter. Simplify it a little bit, but confident. Just more composure with the ball, I think he showed tonight.”
But there was little for the established players to prove. More interesting was what was going on elsewhere on the roster.
"You could sit here and say a Wednesday practice at training camp is very low stakes,” said Nurse. “But when you’re fighting for position or fighting for rotation minutes, you’ve got to play well. You’ve got to play hard, and you’ve got to play well.
“… We’ll see what translates from practice to the game floor. It’s the same things I always say: First and foremost are you going to give great effort? Are you going to compete? Are you going to play winning basketball? Are you going to do the schemes right? Are you going to fill a role? The list is pretty long, but those would be some broad-stroke ideas that would be helpful to guys to make the team.”
Early in the second quarter Raptors fans got their first glimpse of rookie big man Christian Koloko.
The seven-footer from Cameroon made a few nice plays: finishing off a clever pass from Siakam, a fellow Cameroonian, for his first bucket and looking comfortable shooting from the baseline on another, though the ball didn’t drop. He got to the free-throw line after making an adventurous drive to the rim from the perimeter, though only made 1-of-2 shots there. His highlight was a putback dunk off an Achiuwa lay-up late in the first half that sparked the Rogers Place crowd.
More interesting was that defensively – which will be his ticket to a steady role in the NBA – he was directing traffic, communicating, and consistently engaged. He looked comfortable guarding pick-and-roll actions on the perimeter as well.
“He’s handled things very well. He falls into the category of ‘you just don’t see him making very many mistakes’,” said Nurse. “He’ll block a shot, he’ll get a tip in, he’ll move the ball, he’ll get an extra possession with an offensive rebound; those things all add up and there’s not a whole lot of takeaways from what he does or things that take away from the team.
"So to me, he’s looked very good, very solid, a guy we can use for sure.”
The Raptors led 50-49 at the half, setting the stage for a 31-point runaway in the second half. But by then Nurse was committed to seeing new faces and combinations. Siakam, VanVleet, and OG Anunoby were all done for the night. In their place, alongside Barnes and Gary Trent Jr., were Chris Boucher, Khem Birch, and Juancho Hernangomez. They pushed the lead to 12 before Barnes and Trent Jr. sat down in place of Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton.
It would seem there is a path to some steady playing time for either one of Flynn or Banton, with the Raptors' stated goal of cutting back on VanVleet’s minutes, especially since another stated goal is for Toronto to get to the rim more this season.
Flynn in particular is at a stage where he has to prove his worth as he heads into his third season. He opened some eyes in the summer as he put up some hard-to-miss stat lines in some pro-am games, including a 73-point outing in a game this July in a Seattle game hosted by Jamal Crawford.
“I just feel good,” said Flynn. “I put work in in the summer. So just going off of that. Just ready to compete and have a good year.”
It looked like his night might be cut short when he briefly had to leave the floor after taking a hard knock to the side of the head from Jazz guard Colin Sexton. He was fine in the end and ended up chipping in eight points in the second-half route.
Banton was in good form too, as he galloped through the open court for nine points, three rebounds and two steals. The bench – even the deepest corners of it – overwhelmed the Jazz. Toronto took an 82-64 lead into the fourth quarter and was lifted to the finish line by the energy of the ‘home’ crowd whose enthusiasm never wavered.