Seasons aren’t won or lost in Game 1, but tone — especially for a team trying to distance itself from a previous season — can be set.
And anyone not already convinced the Raptors hadn’t set a new tone in the pre-season had to come away from the season-opening win over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves believing they had at least got another stop closer to that.
It was a borderline defensive clinic. OK, there’s still a few issues to address, but holding the Timberwolves to just 94 points in the 97-94 win has to be huge for a team that saw its defensive reputation take a hit a year ago.
The Timberwolves aren’t quite what you would call a Western Conference juggernaut, but they are getting plenty of love from the pre-season prognosticators for two definite reasons.
They have Anthony Edwards, who is coming off one of those career-defining summers with the U.S. national team. They also have a veteran, talent-laden supporting cast around him that includes Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and point guard Mike Conley.
For most involved in the U.S. entry in the FIBA World Cup this past summer, the aftertaste was a bad one. But not Ant, as he is affectionately known throughout the state of Minnesota.
Edwards got a first-class lesson in work ethic and professionalism from a coaching staff that included the who’s who of the NBA coaching ranks, led by Steve Kerr and ably assisted by Eric Spoelstra and Ty Lue.
The former first-overall pick came out of his summer abroad with a whole new approach. Already possessed with the kind of God-given talents only the elite boast in the NBA, that how-to lesson this summer has plenty predicting much bigger and better things from the Timberwolves franchise player.
Edwards had himself a pretty solid statistical night with 26 points and 14 rebounds.
Where the Raptors efforts showed, however, was in the 27 shots Edwards took to get those 26 points. He was only good on 8-of-27 shots for the game, in large part due to the job Toronto’s all-defensive star O.G. Anunoby did on him.
Towns didn’t fare much better. He put up 19 points, but was good on just 8-of-25 shooting. Clearly Anunoby wasn’t the only Toronto defender doing his job at an elite level.
And that’s primarily why you can plausibly get excited about this team after just one game.
The defensive personnel from Anunoby to Precious Achiuwa, who Dennis Schroder credited with turning the game in Toronto’s favour when he came off the bench, to Scottie Barnes — whose five blocks really deserved more attention — carried this opening-night win.
And that’s before you even get to Pascal Siakam, who was denying drives all night it seemed and Jakob Poeltl, who as that last line of defence was pivotal in altering shots and making it difficult in the paint.
Then there’s the speed and the energy of Schroder to track down and keep opposing guards in front of him. Even after that, the length and athleticism throughout the roster to disrupt opposing offences does wonders. It’s a very nice mix to have.
All that said, almost to a man the Raptors were eager to talk about what else could be done to improve on what was a pretty good night.
“In practice, we go over the rotations a lot and we go through everything (about) communication and stuff,” Anunoby said. “It wasn’t perfect, but for it to be like that, we’re very happy and just going to keep trying to improve as the year goes on.”
Siakam, ever the skeptic, put it this way.
“I think we did a decent job,” Siakam said. “I feel like there were some missed opportunities that we had, things that are kind of like easy — offensive rebounds. They had a lot of them (16 in fact, to win the rebound battle, which should be a Raptors strong point).
“But I think overall, like we did a terrific job, just sticking to the game plan,” Siakam said. “Obviously, Ant Edwards got hot early. But I thought we were able to contain him a little bit more as the game was going. O.G. did a great job and. Just as a team, we played well. Scottie blocking shots. We had a pretty decent (night). But I think that we can always get better.”
A lot did go quite well for the Raptors, but enough went wrong to keep this team grounded. It’s easy to get too high or too low in professional sports with a win or loss always just a game away. The good teams, or at least the teams that want to be good, keep an even keel.
The Raptors only had to go to the other side of the court to see where some real pitfalls lay just below the surface.
It’s not a secret that this team isn’t what anyone considers a particular good shooting team. But on opening night they shot 40% from three, led by 11 triples from three starters in Anunoby, Siakam, and Schroder.
That’s above and beyond what this team can realistically expect to average for the season.
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Then you consider the complete buy-in coach Darko Rajakovic got on his share-the-ball mantra on opening night. The Raptors had 27 assists on 36 made baskets. That’s a huge gain on anything they did a year ago.
But even with all that, Toronto scored just 97 points against a team that was missing one of its best perimeter defenders in Jaden McDaniels, who was out with a left calf strain.
Yes, there was plenty to get excited about on opening night, from the result to all those signs that the culture and identity the new head coach covets is within reach.
Not to be a party pooper, but there’s still some miles to go in that regard.