TORONTO – Look out NBA, the Toronto Raptors are here and they’re just as good as ever.
In a potential Finals matchup to open their restart Saturday night against the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champions looked every bit the part and formally introduced themselves to anyone who hadn’t been paying attention that this is as legitimate a championship contender as any other one you can name right now, beating the highly-touted Lakers 107-92.
Kyle Lowry rolled back the clock and, as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after the game, looked like his “vintage” self, tallying 33 points, 14 rebounds and six assists on 8-of-16 shooting from the field and going 5-of-9 from three-point range.
In general, this was as good of a restart opener as the Raptors could’ve hoped for. Here’s a little more of what we saw from them in Saturday’s contest.
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‘One long song’
On Friday, Nurse said the Raptors would treat “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” as “one long song” in the case of any demonstration the team was planning pre-game.
True to their word, the Raptors — and Lakers — knelt for both national anthems in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against racial injustice and police brutality.
After the game, Lowry was interviewed on the ESPN broadcast and shared how while he was kneeling for the four minutes or so it took for the two anthems to play, all he could think about was the eight minutes and 46 seconds George Floyd was choked by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for, eventually leading to his death.
“To think about another human being kneeling on another human being’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, that’s a bad thought to have, an unbelievably messed up thing that that man did to an innocent Black man,” said Lowry. “Those are the things that went through my head. I tip my hat to our organization, to the Lakers organization, for allowing us to protest peacefully and continue to push our message.”
Nurse was also thinking about the movement when he took his knee, but his thoughts lingered to the man who started this act of protest in the first place.
“For me, I think even though it was conformity and showing unity all over the place I still want it to have some kind of individual thought and meaning, for me, and for me I was trying to honour [Colin] Kaepernick,” said Nurse. “It was almost four years ago — I think three years and 11 months ago, exactly — to the day when he kneeled and I thought what he did was super courageous and it really doesn’t have anything to do with borders and anthems and flags and that kind of stuff.
“It’s about drawing attention, rightly so, to racism and police brutality, and that’s what I was thinking about, was honouring him.”
Raptors centre Marc Gasol echoed the sentiments of his teammate and coach — “It’s huge, not only us as a team, but the whole league is behind this movement, it’s sending a strong message” — but offered some levity about the whole situation in regards to the number of players seen changing the knee they were kneeling on in between the two songs.
“I think it was just a matter of we were on one knee for a long time and most of us are really old.”
It was teased and talked about during the scrimmages, but judging by what we saw Saturday night, OG Anunoby has taken the next step.
Scoring 23 on 8-of-9 shooting, including a perfect 3-for-3 mark from three-point range, Anunoby could be the solution to the Raptors’ offensive woes in the event that Pascal Siakam and/or Kyle Lowry simply don’t have it going. They’ve been looking for that solution all season long.
The best example of this was seen in a little 54-second exchange early in the fourth quarter that saw Anunoby go shot-for-shot with LeBron James on three-pointers.
“OG was unbelievable, I said to him, those two big threes after ‘Bron hit his threes and OG came back and hit two big threes,” Lowry said of Anunoby. “His growth and his maturity just continue to get better and I’m proud of him.”
The confidence Anunoby was playing with appears to stem from a much-improved handle that now makes defenders think twice about automatically closing out on him hard and playing him just for the shot when the ball gets to him on kickouts. With his improved ball-handling, Anunoby can now put the ball on the floor with more assuredness and make a strong move to the basket or look to find an open shooter as the defence collapses around him, opening up a whole new dimension to his game we have never really seen before.
Raptors’ defence looking as good as ever
Holding the Lakers to just 35.4 per cent shooting from the field and a measly 92 points, the Raptors’ defence looked as impenetrable as ever.
The hallmark of this team, it’s a very encouraging sign that Toronto’s defence appeared to show no rust right out of the gate, because that’s how this team is going to win moving forward.
“I think I remember one timeout looking down, coming out some time in the second quarter, and I looked down and I said, ‘Jeez, we’re shooting 30 per cent and we’re winning,’” said Nurse. “And that’s kinda what good defence is supposed to do, get you through some of those moments.”
Specifically, the Raptors did a great job on the Lakers’ superstar duo of James and Anthony Davis, holding the pair to just 34 points combined on 9-of-22 shooting.
A big part of this was the individual job Anunoby did on James, visibly frustrating him at times, as well as the collective job the Raptors did as a team to try to push James and Anthony out to the perimeter instead of giving them easy access into the paint where they’re more dangerous.
“I thought we did good for the most part,” Gasol said of the team’s defensive performance. “For the most part, I felt that we did an excellent job. They didn’t have many easy buckets at the rim. I thought we did a great job of contesting shots and rebounding the ball. Great team effort, guys flying around, guys helping each other, communicating. So that’s great to see.”
LeBron has much respect for the Raptors
As strange as it may sound to say that the defending champions are still slept on by many, that does appear to be the case with the Raptors. So much so that even Nurse spoke to this fact.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to pay much attention, they don’t ever seem to, but it’s OK,” said Nurse.
But even if the majority of U.S. national media won’t pay attention to the Raptors, they certainly have it from the game’s biggest star James, who heaped praise on the Raptors after falling to them Saturday.
“That’s a great team. No ifs ands or buts,“ James said of the Raptors. “They’re exceptionally well coached, [have] championship DNA — you can never take that away from a ball club that won a championship — and even before that they got playoff tested guys. Guys that have played not only up here in the NBA but also in FIBA games as well — Marc has been in games throughout his whole life it seems like. So, they’re just a great team and the media may not talk about them much or give them much credit because Kawhi [Leonard] is gone, but players in the league definitely know what kind of team they are.”