TORONTO – Just a few minutes into the fourth quarter Jamal Murray stepped to the line and drained his first NBA point on home soil.
The freebie would turn out to be the Kitchener-native’s lone point through in 12 minutes of play on the floor where he grew up watching the pros.
On a night when DeMar DeRozan became the first Raptor to start a season with three straight games scoring 30+ points, Murray’s homecoming became somewhat of an afterthought.
Up big early, the Nuggets were feisty and pulled even until late in the fourth when the Raptors’ aces closed it down – DeRozan finished with 33, Lowry with 29.
“DeMar’s been great – the offensive force he’s playing with right now has been unreal,” said head coach Dwane Casey after the game.
“Kyle stepped up tonight and gave him a little boost but DeMar’s playing at a very high level defensively and his leadership has been big time”
Jonas Valanciunas added 12 points and nine boards, while Patrick Patterson blocked a career-best five shots. Three players had 16 points for the Nuggets and Jusef Nurkic added 13 with a career-high 18 rebounds. Full stats here.
Through three games Jamal Murray has yet to find his stride but as NPH and fellow Canadians know from experience, when he gets in the groove he can score with the best of them.
“I’m not going to force a shot or just put one up,” Murray said post-game. “I try and play for my team and be a playmaker. I was trying to do that and keep them in the game and it just wasn’t enough.”
And knowing Murray it’s unlikely nerves got to him playing in the ACC.
“As a fan you’re not really nervous or anything, you just go in and watch a good game,” said Cory Joseph following shootaround Monday. “When you play you want to do well, especially in your hometown so there’s more pressure on you but at the same time it’s a basketball game and, for me, I play the same way no matter where I play so hopefully he plays the same way.”
Joseph’s first game back in Toronto as a member of the Spurs in 2011 was a brief appearance off the bench but he remembers having to get to the ACC really early to arrange to meet people, give out tickets and other hostly duties.
“As a kid you dream to be that guy and then when you actually get there maybe take a second and think, man, you’re really about to do this. At the same time you don’t want to do that the whole game or you’ll get caught up in it.”
Cory Joseph was there for The Jamal Murray Game at last summers’ Pan Am Games in Toronto (so was NPH!) when Murray scored 22 in the fourth and OT to sink Team USA in the Semis. This, before Murray had even played one game in the NCAA. So Joseph knows he can score.
“Obviously he can shoot the ball really well,” Joseph said. “The pre-season game we played him he played really good, especially down the stretch of the game. He’s getting a little bit more adjusted to the NBA game, and I feel like as he gets more adjusted people will see the talented kid that he is.”
Jamal Murray interview video coming soon! Continue reading for Raptors season outlook.
In a season where the finalists are already ordained with the King in Cleveland and Kevin Durant joining the 73-win Warriors, everybody else is just swinging for a lucky shot.
Toronto is well positioned to be one of those teams that could land a blow.
Coming off a franchise-best 56 wins, not only winning a playoff series but two of them, taking two games from LeBron and the eventual champs in the East Finals, and hosting the All-Star Weekend and launching a D-League franchise in Mississauga, the team did everything last year.
Now they can just concentrate on playing ball.
DeRozan and Lowry will likely be All-Stars again coming off a golden summer with the USA Men’s Olympic team. Their isolation tendencies were picked apart by Indiana and Miami but winning erased those still-substantial questions.
Toronto had the fewest passes that led to assists, and the second-fewest assists in the league last year and that will continue to be an issue when both of your starting guards’ first option is to dribble.
Valanciunas had a stellar playoffs and has started hot, but lacking a dependable back-up will go one of two ways: either he’ll overexert himself physically and end up on the shelf, or Casey will be forced to give JV the minutes and crunch-time experience he’s been reluctant to and he’ll thrive.
Jared Sullinger, presumptive starter, is already on the mend for 2-3 months and should-be starter Patrick Patterson remains, by choice, coming off the bench. That leaves Pascal Siakam, the little known 27th pick, trying to play the Biyombo role that suited this team so well before $72 million lured him to Orlando.
Missing Sullinger will be a problem with every game a chance to stay up the standings and avoid the Cavaliers until the East Finals again.
Question marks dot the rest of the roster (when will DeMarre Carroll return to form? is Terrence Ross in it to win it? Is Norman Powell ready for primetime?) but the solid core of a contender remains, swinging at the champs and dancing into the postseason again.