Rajakovic era off to successful start as Raptors hold off Timberwolves

Toronto Raptors' O.G. Anunoby (3) drives as Minnesota Timberwolves' Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) and Rudy Gobert (left) defend during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 25, 2023. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — How to define success. Hmm.

In professional sports, it should be easy: Winning. That’s why they keep score, that’s why the people who can contribute to winning get paid more — in theory — than those that don’t.

But since only one team can win the last game of the season, get the trophy and call themselves champions, the definition of what is successful inevitably gets broadened depending on circumstance.

No one around the Toronto Raptors has been talking about championships or trophies. They’re not that team, or don’t figure to be. They won 41 games last year and haven’t won a playoff round in four seasons.

So as the curtain was finally lifted on the 2023-24 season and the start of the Darko Rajakovic era, the stated goals were less about specifics, and more about process as the new head coach gets a feel for his team and his role after taking over from Nick Nurse, who helped bring Toronto its first and only championship back in 2019.

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“A successful season for me, it’s really about the standard of how we play and for us, improving week by week,” said Rajakovic as his club was poised to host the Minnesota Timberwolves “We’re entering a season that’s 82 games long. We are looking at a lot of players that have tremendous talent on our team. It’s about our cohesiveness and how closely we’re gonna work, how we’re going to support each other, how we’re going to grow through the season. My dream is that we play our best basketball at the end of the year, so we continue to grow as the season (has) progressed.”

Well, baby steps. The Raptors didn’t celebrate exactly as a championship team might, but there was a big roar and an ice-water shower in the locker room to recognize the first-year head coach’s first NBA win, 97-94 over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves.

There was plenty to like – 34 fast break points, a solid 14-of-35 outing from the three-point line and a teamwide defensive effort that limited the Timberwolves to 34 per cent shooting overall and 8-of-31 from deep. 

I thought that our guys did a really good job with the gameplan, did a really good job on [Minnesota star Anthony] Edwards especially,” said Rajakovic. “I thought they fought for every single possession.”

Maybe that’s as much a goal as any other: compete hard and good things will follow. Still, Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl tried to nail down the idea of success a little more tightly:

“We want to get to the playoffs, we want to make noise in the playoffs,” said Poeltl, an eight-year veteran who helped Toronto to a 15-9 record in games he started after he was re-acquired at the trade deadline last season, a source for optimism in itself. “We want to show we can be one of those teams that comes in with low expectations and can upset some people, but also for a new group to come together and really show that we can play the right way and we can kind of grow within the system.”

But even at that, Poeltl hedged:

“It might not be an easy start to the season because we have a couple of new pieces and a brand-new coaching staff and brand-new system, so if we manage to show the potential that we got and start building something that can have a lot of success in the coming years, I think that can have a successful season.”

Well, let’s start with a successful night? The Toronto Raptors are undefeated, and even if their first win was light on the aesthetic graces, it will look beautiful in the standings.

The Raptors were led by one of their new faces, as free-agent point guard and FIBA Basketball World Cup MVP Dennis Schroder led his new club with 22 points and seven assists on 8-of-17 shooting in his 32 minutes, becoming the first Raptor to go for 20 points or more in their debut with the club since Kawhi Leonard. He had some help from some old hands as O.G. Anunoby finished with 20 points on 13 shots and was a key factor in holding Edwards to 8-of-26 shooting on his way to 26 points, 10 of which came in the opening minutes of the first quarter.

“I was a little too loose with him. [early],” said Anunoby, who is trying to follow up on his all-defence selection from last season. “He’s a great player and I was giving him too much space … He was pretty comfortable. That’s what great players do when they’re comfortable, they make shots. So just try to make it difficult for him. Just be physical with him and force him to take tough shots.”

Pascal Siakam won’t be framing his 5-of-17 shooting line but he hit a pair of threes in the final five minutes that helped keep the Timberwolves on their back foot. Similarly, Scottie Barnes‘s 6-of-16 line wasn’t very pretty, but he chipped in with eight rebounds, five assists, five blocks and two steals.

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Toronto shot just 40 per cent from the floor and struggled mightily in the halfcourt for most of the night as Timberwolves centre Rudy Gobert made life difficult at the rim. Fixing their halfcourt offence is next on the to-do list.

“I thought we still needed to play faster,” said Rajakovic, who like his team’s urgency in transition, but wants more pace in the halfcourt as well where things seemed to bog down too often.  “What I mean by that is there were moments that we were coming past half-court, and then we did not get into offence early enough and quickly enough. That’s something that we are still going to work on. It’s one of those things like, we cannot just be watching each other. We’ve gotta be able to cut and drive and collapse defence and find open people. [There were] moments we were really good and moments we did not do a great job today with it.” 

So, yeah, the Raptors shooting just 18-of-50 from the floor in the opening two quarters looked familiar even as they eked out a 53-51 halftime lead. But they took care of the ball well enough (five turnovers) after struggling on that front in the pre-season and even with the departure of Nurse, who ushered in an aggressive, ball-hawking defensive approach, Toronto was able to cause Minnesota — a popular sleeper favourite in the Western Conference — plenty of problems, holding the visitors to 33 per cent from the floor.

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Another vestige of Nurse’s tenure as head coach was to play a fairly tight eight-man rotation and rely on his starters more than any coach in the league. Rajakovic has pledged to use a 10-man rotation in part to keep his starters fresh, but also, he says, because he believes he has a deep team. It’s only one game, but Rajakovic can maybe see where Nurse was coming from a little more clearly. After his starters pushed Toronto’s lead to 10 midway through the third quarter, the bench unit gave it all back as Minnesota closed the third quarter on a 14-3 run. Malachi Flynn — the fourth-year point guard who could never crack Nurse’s rotation — was minus-11 in his five third-quarter minutes and minus-14 in his 10 minutes for the game as the Timberwolves took a 74-73 lead into the fourth quarter.

Rookie Gradey Dick made his first NBA appearance but played just two minutes. Missing from the rotation was Chris Boucher who has been a fixture the past two seasons.

Eventually, the Raptors were able to open up just enough breathing room as Rajakovic found a stout closing lineup that featured Precious Achiuwa at centre instead of Poeltl and Toronto made just enough shots.

It was as a win, the first of how many no one knows, but without question a successful way to start the season.

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