The Toronto Raptors closed their exhibition season with a listless-looking 117-105 defeat to the Miami Heat Friday night, playing for the first time in their new temporary home of Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.
Toronto only shot 38 per cent from the field, and outside of a standout performance from Kyle Lowry, was generally flat and looked every bit the part of a team playing its last exhibition game of the season.
Like everything with this season, the exhibition schedule whipped by quickly and the next game the Raptors play will be for real this coming Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Here are a few takeaways from Friday’s pre-season finale.
Lowry looking sensational
After skipping the Raptors’ first two pre-season games in Charlotte because his coach claimed he wanted to preserve him a little — and to play a round or two on the links — Lowry made his pre-season debut Friday and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.
Lowry finished Friday’s contest with 25 points in just 27 minutes, shooting 7-of-14 from the floor, including a 6-for-10 mark from deep and looked to be in fantastic shape both physically and competitively as he was already seen working the officials and looking his patently grumpy, never-satisfied self on the floor.
"He obviously was really good, excited to play [and] being back,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse after the game. "I wish a couple of guys had gone with him in that same kind of zeal and excitement but they didn’t.
"He was certainly one of the bright spots of tonight’s performance, looked like he was in mid-season form tonight.”
Lowry was also pleased with his performance Friday, though maybe not willing to give the kind of score Nurse would.
"I hope I’m not in mid-season form right now because we just started,” he said. "I just felt good to be out there. It felt good to be playing basketball with the team on the floor in a game. It’s one thing where it’s always good to get back on that floor with the guys and getting hit a little bit from other teams and trying to kinda beat up on other teams.”
With the season right around the corner, it was a positive sign to see that the Raptors’ undisputed leader and best player is still looking exactly like those two things.
Impressions of the new home
As mentioned before, the Raptors played their game in their new temporary home of Amalie Arena.
It was a little odd at first seeing sponsorship signage for Canadian companies like Sportchek and Canadian Tire in a building where the Tampa Bay Lightning play at first, but in the end, it looked and sounded like any other normal Raptors home game.
This was aided by little touches that were brought from Toronto such as a copy of the 2019 championship banner hanging in the rafters and even some of the game ops touches, such as hearing the signature Ric Flair ‘Woo’ whenever Lowry scored.
But what truly made it special was seeing fans in the arena. The Raptors are one of seven teams that will be allowing fans in their arenas when the season starts and although there weren’t as many as there will be allowed during the regular season, having an audience present sounded like a missed part of the NBA experience.
"Yeah, it was certainly nice to see, obviously I think it felt a lot like some of the minor-league games I coached, felt a lot like the crowds we used to have at some of those games smattered across the lower bowl like that,” said Nurse. "But it seemed like there was some people up there having some fun, right? It really, really did and I think that’s nice to see, that’s the main thing, people can get out and enjoy themselves.”
Added Lowry: "It was cool, man. Unfortunately we played the Miami Heat, so we heard a little bit more cheers than jeers for them but it’s always great to be able to have fans in front of us, man. We play for our fans, we play for the fans of the NBA, we play for fans of basketball. The atmosphere was really cool.”
Too many threes?
Here’s an interesting stat for you: About 64.1 per cent of the shot attempts the Raptors took Friday came from the three-point range.
The three-point shot is great and all, but that’s a rather high percentage and, as Nurse said, that’s not exactly how the Raptors want to play moving forward this season, and the reason for all the bombing from deep was more because of what the Heat were doing defensively.
"That was a little bit extreme tonight, yeah I think they play a pack-the paint defence, make you beat ’em from the outside,” Nurse said. "I thought we took 57 [sic], and I thought we turned down another 17. So yeah, I think it was the defence that was kind of presented to us tonight.”
Playing what the defence gives you is one thing. But if that’s exactly what that defence wants to give you, alternative ways to attack still need to be utilized as well, and in this case, it would’ve been more welcome to see the Raptors attack the paint better than they did before.
The Raptors are an excellent team in transition but still appear a little sluggish in the half-court and part of that could be aided by a player who could better get to the rim via cutting or drives to the basket. It’s a problem that Nurse is well aware of.
"We’ve got to do a better job of creating opportunities to get into the paint, and get to the front of the rim for sure,” he said.”
However, given how guard and wing-heavy Toronto’s roster is, getting to the hole may prove more difficult than just said, which is why the majority of those looks Toronto got in Friday’s game came in transition.
So, in this vein, it would probably make more sense for the Raptors to focus on trying to create transition opportunities for themselves and the best way to do so would be to become the kind of team that Lowry said he envisions it becoming this season.
"I think we should become a real-life defensive monster,” said Lowry. "That’s what I would like us to become. I don’t want us to be this offensive juggernaut. I want us to be a defensive team where every single possession, every single night the team who is coming in knows that it’s going to be a slug-it-out game, and they’re going to get hit, they’re going to get beat up. They’re not gonna be roaming free. That’s one thing I would love for us to become.”
Making a team feel you on one end and then running the ball down their throats while they’re still recovering from the latest bruise sounds like a pretty good recipe for success.
Roster battle update
It’s looking clearer every day that DeAndre’ Bembry will have a rather sizeable role to play on the Raptors this season.
On Friday he got some time with some of the starters and looked like he fit in just as seamlessly as he’s appeared with the second unit.
"I think he’s gonna be great for us,” Lowry said of Bembry. "I think he gives us a chance to have another ball-handler. I think he gives us a guy who can give myself and [Fred VanVleet] opportunities to get off and run around and be us and get open looks. On the defensive end, he can guard anybody one through four, his aggressiveness, his assertiveness. And he’s very smart. He knows how to play defence and offence. He knows when to cut and when to get out of the way.”
Chris Boucher is also a player who’s looking like he’ll be getting more consistent burn this season and on Friday he showed what kind of weapon he could be, scoring 11 points, including going 3-for-4 from three-point range.
The kind of offensive skillset Boucher brings to the Raptors differs so dramatically from what Aron Baynes or Alex Len can give the team, although it seems Nurse may still have some concerns about his game that he wants to see the Canadian big man shore up.
"I think first and foremost, Chris has got to be a defender for us, and a rebounder and a rim protector. He’s got to be. He can’t be a guy that’s not being able to hold his own on his position on offence and hope he gets it back at the other end,” Nurse said. "I always say that he can play offence, hit the shot as we saw tonight, he can roll and dunk. A lot of that’s kind of icing on the cake offence for us. Again, first and foremost he has to play with great energy, be a great defender and a rim protector first and foremost.”
Finally, an intriguing battle here right before rosters for the season must be finalized is the job Japanese forward Yuta Watanabe has done to impress the Raptors brass enough to give them pause about whether they want to bring on board, officially.
Watanabe signed an Exhibit-10 contract as, essentially, a training camp invite, but at six-foot-eight with good length, a nice-looking three-point stroke and some play-making in his game he looks like an interesting developmental piece with possibly high upside not unlike Boucher was when the Raptors first brought him into the organization.
Nurse, at the very least, seemed impressed by the 26-year-old and indicated that Watanabe’s future with the club could be determined soon.
"Yeah, I mean he played really good in all three games, there’s no doubt about it. I think he’s done everything he possibly can do,” Nurse said. "I’m going to go into a meeting here shortly to talk with the front office and we’ll see how it shakes out, but he’s had a heck of a camp.”