10 things Raptors-Nets: Champs excel in final preseason tune-up

William Lou
NBA reporter

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 123-107 win over the Brooklyn Nets in the final game of preseason.

One — Ready to go: Despite a protracted training camp that saw the Raptors travel across the globe and back, the world champions looked sharp in their final tune-up. Nick Nurse stuck with a tight eight-man rotation comprised of seven returning champions and an upstart rookie in Terence Davis, and his team executed brilliantly. The Raptors shared the ball (31 assists), pressured their opponents (38.8 percent shooting), and shot the lights out (24-of-47 from deep.) It was as encouraging of an outing as one could possibly hope for with the regular season set to tip-off on Tuesday.

Two — Not unfamiliar: In terms of style, this game mirrored the 22 games that Kawhi Leonard missed last season. Toronto went 17-5 in Leonard’s absence, and while that number is inflated by the Raptors facing generally weaker competition, a quarter of the season is hardly insignificant. Toronto made an additional 20 passes per game without Leonard in the lineup, and it led to several results similar to tonight, where everyone was a threat. When there is no clear-cut first option, Nurse prefers to even the floor so all five can be a threat instead of elevating one player above the rest.

Three — Ready for a leap: The most impressive Raptor on the floor was Fred VanVleet, who continues to play with the confidence and poise of a Finals MVP vote recipient. VanVleet drew the start ahead of Norman Powell, and as usual, he thrived playing next to Kyle Lowry in the dual point-guard lineup. VanVleet was aggressive with the jumper, both in terms of shooting it off the dribble and firing without fear from deep, but it was the playmaking that stands out. VanVleet was masterful in controlling the offense, as he recorded eight assists to just one turnover, and dropped a gorgeous dime on a bounce pass to set up a corner triple from Pascal Siakam. VanVleet is poised for a breakout season, and don’t be surprised if he starts a fair share of games.

Four — Comeback season: It’s a testament to Nurse’s offense that a fourth option like OG Anunoby was able to lead the team in scoring in an emphatic victory. Anunoby was brimming with confidence as he hit four threes as part of his 18 points in 28 minutes. Anunoby’s pick-and-rolls went nowhere, but that’s not his role. If he can space the floor, knock down a handful of open looks, and make a few timely cuts to the rim, then his place in the starting lineup will be cemented. The only slight nitpick with Anunoby is his rebounding — with Leonard gone, the Raptors need Anunoby to place a greater emphasis on securing misses.

Five — Rusty, but it’ll come: Kyle Lowry finally made his preseason debut and it’s clear that his rhythm is off. Lowry’s pull-up threes sprayed all over, and his bully drives to the rim were easily thwarted by his defenders. Now that Lowry is in his mid-thirties, there isn’t much room for error so his success will come down to timing. Fortunately, his mind is still sharp, as Lowry pushed the pace and made clever two-way contributions. His telepathic two-man game with Marc Gasol remains a thing of beauty, and they will help each other age more gracefully.

Six — Muted, but still important: One quiet trend throughout preseason is that Pascal Siakam hasn’t been featured nearly as much as the hype suggests. Perhaps it is still coming, but Siakam’s role doesn’t look entirely different from where he was last season. Nurse does run a few plays for Siakam out of timeouts, but there is not nearly the same emphasis placed on featuring Siakam in isolation as there was with Leonard. Granted, there was no need to emphasize Siakam on a night where his touch was off, and with the team collectively throwing darts from deep, but it does remain something of a mystery. Does Siakam have the skills to be an effective No. 1 option when the game slows down? That’s the million-dollar question in his ongoing extension negotiations.

Seven — Underrated: Not enough is said about Serge Ibaka, who continues to age backwards in his time with the Raptors. Unlike the other two 30-year-olds, Ibaka came into camp in tip-top shape and he continues to dominate. Ibaka was lethal in his 19 minutes off the bench, as he recorded 15 points (including a driving two-handed dunk, among several impressive finishes) and 11 rebounds on remarkable efficiency. Ibaka will either be a top-four scorer for the Raptors, or he will fetch a quality return on the trade market. Either way, the degree to which Ibaka continues to blossom entering the latter stage of his career is admirable.

Eight — Sparkplug: Don’t expect this from undrafted rookie Terence Davis II on a nightly basis. Rather, take this as a reminder of what he’s capable of. Davis delivered 10 immediate points in his first stint off the bench, as he nailed threes from each corner, on top of converting a driving layup and finishing a baseline dunk. Davis seems to have already won over Nurse’s trust, and while Davis is still prone to mistakes and limited as a playmaker, he has a drive and a determination to make contributions on both ends of the floor. His acrobatic rebounding is a genuine treat to watch.

Nine — Message received: Nurse called out the newcomers at practice on Wednesday, and it looks as if Stanley Johnson is rising to the challenge. Johnson was very shaky on offense, but his defensive effort was impressive. Not a single player scored on him, and Johnson also made a noticeable effort to impact the game as a help defender. Johnson’s only path to minutes is to supply that level of disruptiveness on a nightly basis, but that shouldn’t be beyond him.

Ten — Still experimenting: Evidently, Nurse wasn’t kidding about his jumbo-ball lineup. Lowry captained a throwback unit with Anunoby, Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol in the second quarter, and while it was awkward to see Ibaka and Gasol patrol the perimeter, it also created advantages for the Raptors to exploit. Gasol overpowered his defender on the block, and the Raptors were Sixers-level smothering on defense. It’s definitely a look that Nurse should have in his back pocket for certain matchups.

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