Raptors open preseason with win in front of playoff-worthy Edmonton crowd


Edmonton – They love them. They really like them.

After a week in Western Canada – first in Victoria where the Toronto Raptors held training camp and now in Alberta where they hosted the Utah Jazz in their first exhibition game on Sunday night – we can it’s safe to say that the enthusiasm for Canada’s only NBA team extends well beyond the confines of the GTA or southern Ontario.

This isn’t breaking news — the explosion in TV ratings and the proliferation of Jurassic Parks across the country during the Raptors’ 2019 championship run made the case pretty compelling.

But it’s still interesting to get a taste of it in person. The crowd at the intra-squad scrimmage in Victoria was as boisterous and enthusiastic as possible for the type of event it was – a live practice with a bit of goodwill and community building.

In Edmonton, Rogers Place was jammed up to the rafters and it looked like everyone in the building was wearing official team gear. A playoff-worthy « let’s go Raptors » chant erupted before the ball went up and every Raptors basket, from the opening tip to the final horn, was greeted as if it meant something.

« It’s always a great reception, » Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Sunday.

“This place couldn’t have been more packed for an intra-squad game in Victoria the other day… normally for those [Canadian exhibition] games the reception is great, the crowd is in it. It’s their only chance to see some of the local talent in their home region. They usually bring it. It’s cool because there are a lot of pre-season games where you have zero energy, almost switching to negative energy in some of those games. We don’t have to go through that. It’s funny. … I think it’s also great for basketball in Canada.

What to take from what turned out to be a 114-82 blowout?

Well, not that much. Nurse had said in advance that the game would be light on minutes for starters and heavy on opportunities for those in the middle of his rotation.

The starters turned him around a lot and looked a little rusty — Pascal Siakam was 1 of 6 in the first quarter with four giveaways all by himself. But Scottie Barnes looks set to pick up where his Rookie of the Year season left off as he had eight points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 17:31 of ground time.

Precious Achiuwa looked quick after the dribble, and calm and collected in transition, suggesting he’s not about to regress to the early-season awkwardness he started with at the start of last season . He led all Raptors scorers in the first half with 10.

But the established players didn’t have much to prove. More interesting was what was happening elsewhere on the list.

« You could sit here and say a Wednesday practice in training camp is very low stakes, » Nurse said. « But when you’re fighting for position or for rotational minutes, you have to play well. You have to play hard, and you have to play well.

“…We’ll see what translates from training to the playing field. It’s always the same thing I say: first and foremost are you going to put in a lot of effort? Are you going to compete? Will you play winning basketball? Are you going to do the diagrams well? Are you going to fill a role? The list is quite long, but these would be general ideas that would be useful for guys to make the team.

Early in the second quarter, Raptors fans got their first glimpse of rookie big man Christian Koloko.

The seven-foot Cameroonian made some good plays: he finished off a smart pass from Siakam for his first bucket and looked comfortable shooting from the baseline on another, although the ball didn’t drop. He arrived at the free-throw line after making an adventurous drive to the edge from the perimeter, despite only making 1 of 2 shots. His highlight was a return dunk on a lay- up from Achiuwa at the end of the first half which sparked the Rogers Place crowd.

More interesting was that defensively — which will be his ticket to a stable NBA role — he was directing traffic, communicating, and constantly engaged. He also seemed comfortable keeping pick-and-roll actions on the perimeter.

“He handled things very well. He falls into the « you just don’t see him making a lot of mistakes » category, Nurse said. “He’ll block a shot, he’ll get a tip, he’ll move the ball, he’ll get extra possession with an offensive rebound; all of those things add up and there’s not a lot to take away from what he does or things that take away from the team.

« So to me he looks very good, very solid, a guy we can use for sure. »

The Raptors led 50-49 at halftime, setting the stage for a 31-point second-half leak. But by then, Nurse was committed to seeing new faces and new combinations. Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby were all done for the night. In their place, alongside Barnes and Gary Trent Jr., were Chris Boucher, Khem Birch and Juancho Hernangomez. They pushed the lead to 12 before Barnes and Trent Jr. sat in place of Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton.

It looks like there’s a path to steady playing time for either Flynn or Banton, with the Raptors’ stated goal of cutting VanVleet’s minutes, especially as another stated goal is for Toronto to surrender more on board this season.

Flynn in particular is at a stage where he needs to prove his worth as he enters his third season. He opened his eyes this summer as he posted hard-to-miss stat lines in some pro-am games, including a 73-point one-game outing in July in a Seattle game hosted by Jamal Crawford.

« I feel good, » Flynn said. “I work in the summer. So just go from there. I’m just ready to compete and have a good year.

It looked like his night might be cut short when he briefly had to leave the floor after taking a hard blow to the side of the head from Jazz guard Colin Sexton. He was fine in the end and ended up scoring eight points in the second half.

Banton was also in fine form, as he galloped across the open field for nine points, three rebounds and two steals. The bench – even the deepest corners of it – overwhelmed the Jazz. Toronto took an 82-64 lead in the fourth quarter and was carried to the finish line by the energy of the “hometown” crowd whose enthusiasm never wavered.


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