The Toronto Raptors look ready for the regular season.
That was the takeaway on a night where head coach Dwane Casey played something that will more closely resemble his opening-night rotation, a night on which the Raptors grabbed an early lead against the Detroit Pistons and refused to relinquish it over the game’s final 42 minutes. Three weeks into a month-long training camp that includes seven hold-overs in the primary rotation, that’s the hope – one of the Raptors’ edges is continuity and consistency, and they should be expected to hit the ground running a little better than most.
The team’s All-Star guard duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan looked comfortable, as they have for the bulk of the preseason, even after sitting out the last game. They combined for 53 points on 35 shots in a little under three quarters, passing off the fourth to the bench as they keep their workloads under the 30-minute marker. In previous games, Lowry and DeRozan have been alternating turns carrying the bulk of the scoring, but Wednesday as a sound reminder that they can trade possessions rather than entire stretches, too, and that a dual approach can be nearly impossible for opponents, the ball swinging across the floor from a pick-and-roll to someone coming off a pin-down and back, forcing defenders back and forth laterally as mismatches open up.
The primary supporting cast didn’t have it’s best night, which was somewhat surprising and disappointing after DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas looked to be rounding into form last week. Both players struggled from the field in this one, and while Valanciunas feasted on the glass and showed an exciting willingness to pass, he struggled some opposite frequent nemesis Andre Drummond. Carroll, meanwhile, continued to look solid moving without the ball, but missing three attempts essentially at the rim is discouraging given his struggles finishing a season ago. Patrick Patterson had a quiet night, too, missing a three so badly at one point he was noticeably shaking his fist at himself. None of these are concerns, really, given how comfortable each has looked earlier on, it just wasn’t a night on which everyone had (extremely Chris Jericho voice) “it.”
Cory Joseph was the one regular rotation piece who looked his part, using some crafty moves and showing off the renewed comfort in his jump shot. Joseph’s now shooting 54.8 percent for the preseason, including 3-of-4 on threes and, based on my own tracking, 11-of-22 on shots between 10 feet out and the 3-point line. He’s expressed confidence in that shot, and Casey has admitted that some combination of Joseph and Terrence Ross may need to pick up the offensive slack with second units if the team is going to keep minutes down for Lowry and DeRozan, so this could be a significant development.
Ross, by the way, sat out once again with knee soreness, joined by Jared Sullinger (foot). That meant the Raptors only had six of the eight players who appear confirmed for their 10-man rotation.
Knowing that, one would have assumed it was a big opportunity for Norman Powell to continue to claw his way back ahead of Ross in the pecking order, but Powell didn’t see the floor until the second half. Instead, Drew Crawford got the nod as the first wing off the bench. Crawford did what he does – some decent defense and spotting up around the perimeter, though his final line was pretty quiet in nine minutes – and it remains difficult to tell how seriously Casey and company are considering an extra wing for the 15th roster spot. Fred VanVleet has long seemed the favorite, and a scoreless 15 minutes in this one isn’t going to change how the team feels about him. Still, with Ross and Sullinger on the mend and Carroll’s playing time in mind, Crawford getting the nod over Powell is curious, at the least. Once Powell did get on the floor, he looked fine moving the ball but still seems to be pressing a bit, even after an outing against San Lorenzo that some hoped would settle him back into his comfort zone.
That leaves the backup center position, which Lucas Nogueira may have locked down in this one. He didn’t bring exactly what was needed defensively, allowing Drummond to establish position far too low in the post at times, but he was mostly solid at both ends of the floor. That’s all the Raptors are looking for from Nogueira, is to be solid, and the fewer times he stands out for reasons other than his enormous smile, the better. That he’s the biggest lob threat on the dive and was setting some vicious screens in this one doesn’t hurt, either, nor does the bit of passing flair he offers on the rare occasions the team wants it. Jakob Polelt was anything but bad in this one, and the game really seems to be slowing down for him quickly at both ends (his decision making is a lot quicker and sharper when he gets the ball and he’s no longer clearly counting out his three seconds on defense). Poeltl could use some extra time (few 20-year-old big men can contribute right away), and Nogueira affords the team the luxury of bringing him along at a reasonable pace.
Friday’s preseason finale should be telling in terms of the rotation. Are Ross and Sullinger back? If not, does that mean more of Pascal Siakam’s infectious brand of run-outs and energy, and is he perhaps carving out an unlikely 11th-man role that way? Is Powell in the “dress rehearsal” rotation? Do Nogueira and Poeltl flip roles for a game to get one final, longer look at the rookie? Has the defense settled in now after a few bad starts to games, or did Detroit just have an off night? It’s not a certainty that Casey is revealing his plans with these decisions, but we’re running out of preseason tea leaves to read. Thankfully. The team looks ready for the regular season, and so am I.Follow @raptorsrepublic