Raptors walk the talk in first preseason game

The Raptors can pass. The Clippers play fast. NBA basketball is back, almost.

The Toronto Raptors are one step closer to kicking down the door to the 2017-18 season after winning their opening preseason game in Hawaii against the L.A. Clippers, 121-113.

Throughout the summer, there had been talk of a culture change, the need for more passing, and more threes. On this night, they checked all those boxes with 22 assists, 43 three-point attempts, and different looks on offense that could help spark what many look at as an archaic offence.

Jonas Valančiūnas, member of a dying breed at the center position, showed signs that he may yet have more to his game than many have suspected. The Lithuanian was given the opportunity on multiple occasions to make decisions at the top of the three-point line and delivered four assists and should have had a couple more if not for fouls at the basket that led to free throws. A couple of them were on cuts to the basket — the hi-lo feeds usually reserved for the likes of Al Horford, Nikola Jokić, and the Gasol brothers.

Speaking of foul shots, newly minted $100 million dollar man Kyle Lowry went a perfect 8-for-8 at the line, attacking the basket at will and looking spry with his jumper. He knocked down three of his four long-range attempts and will be leading the charge from the perimeter as the Raptors look to play catch-up in that facet of the game. Lowry made mention that he will be looking to attempt 10 three-pointers a game, but he’s also a cerebral player that lets the game come to him, and so won’t just be throwing it up from downtown for the sake of it.

Serge Ibaka came closest to double-digit attempts from beyond the arc in this contest, but came away with just one make to show for his nine tries. It was a bit of a struggle defensively as well and Blake Griffin dragged him out to the perimeter and impressed with his three-point stroke. Ibaka is probably going to be one of the harder players to take anything away from as he is someone that thrives under a competitive setting — his time in Orlando only serving to further that belief.

On the other end of the spectrum is DeMar DeRozan, who always seems to be in prove ’em mode. True to form, DeRozan was a perfect 4-for-4 from inside the arc, but missed both of his attempts from beyond. There were a couple of nice defensive contributions to go along with four assists.

Those starters were as expected, but C.J. Miles got the first crack at small forward ahead of Norman Powell. The early returns were positive, with Miles providing a better outside threat and overall floor game than last year’s model. It’s entirely plausible that Powell gets the next crack when these two teams square off on a late Tuesday night. After some early struggles for the bench unit as a whole, Powell came into his own, finishing with 16 points on eight field-goal attempts.

One player that never recovered with the bench unit was Bruno Caboclo. Entering his fourth NBA season (I look at it as his third since his rookie year was such a waste to the point that Masai Ujiri was adamant about setting up their own G-League franchise), the Brazilian that’s definitely not Kevin Durant looked as close to a deer in a headlights as someone could in a preseason game. There were three-pointers that were well off the mark, missed defensive rotations, and just some poor decisions made overall including a goaltend on a DeRozan layup attempt.

Showing the calmness and poise that one hopes Caboclo will exhibit one day, Fred VanVleet was a breath of fresh air when he checked in as he provided an interesting look beside Delon Wright in a two point-guard lineup. Steady as ever, he just made winning plays and helped the Raptors gain some separation in the fourth. Wright is expected to be the frontrunner for backup point guard minutes, but VanVleet will definitely be in the running for playing time if he can continue to just make smart basketball decisions.

All this being said, it is indeed difficult to read too much into one preseason game, and the team will have to show a trend that carries over into the regular season to be given serious credit for making changes, this preseason probably has more on offer than any other for two main reasons. The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement has cut the preseason in half, making the time that players have to get in rhythm for the games that matter that much shorter. Secondly, as a result of the shorter time frames, sports science, and the trend of players finding colleagues to work out with through the summer, they are now coming to training camp in far greater shape than years past, and not using camp and preseason to regain their fitness. That’s what I think, anyway.

As mentioned previously, the Raptors next game will be against the Clippers again on Tuesday night, at 1:00AM EST. Yeah, it’s a late one, but I’ll be sure to have the scoop from it when it’s done.

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