December 5, 2021

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

Raptors calmly handle hot-headed Blazers in riveting scrimmage win

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 110-104 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the second of three scrimmage games ahead of the 2019-20 season restart.

One — Intensity: Who says scrimmages don’t count? The Raptors and Blazers traded pointed elbows and verbal jabs as if it was the 1992 USA Dream Team scrimmage from Barcelona. Serge Ibaka and Jusuf Nurkic squared up in the second quarter after battling for a rebound, and that flashpoint defined the rest of the game. Portland went on a mini-run behind inspired play from Nurkic, but the reigning champs responded in kind and took the lead. Even when the benches cleared for the fourth quarter, where it was essentially a glorified G-League game, there was still talking back and forth between the two benches.

Two — Rolling: Ibaka continues to set the tone with a yet another stellar showing, scoring 11 points in the third quarter as part of a 19-point effort. Ibaka continues to be impressive from deep, where he went 3-of-5 including a bomb from 30 feet out, and shook Nurkic off the dribble to draw a shooting foul. Even in his 11th season, Ibaka continues to show improvement in his game, as he is now a confident and capable finisher at all three levels. He’s steady on his hook shot, automatic at the elbows, and is shooting over 40 percent from three on the season. It’s been an incredible contract year.

Three — Jumbo: Nick Nurse kept raving about his big lineup in the lead-up to the scrimmages, and finally showed his hand with Ibaka starting alongside Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. Nurse’s first substitution was to go even bigger, with the 6-foot-8 OG Anunoby replacing VanVleet. Despite their excess of size, the jumbo lineup opened the game with seven-straight three-point attempts, which speaks to the versatility of the group. Even with three bigs on the floor, the Raptors can still maintain five-out spacing, which is a huge reason why the lineup still works in an era of smallball.

Four — Worrisome: VanVleet suffered a “banged knee” on a harmless sequence involving Anfernee Simons, and immediately asked to check out of the game before limping off. Fortunately, that seems to be only a minor scare, as Nurse said afterwards that he didn’t think the injury was too bad, but that there was no reason to jeopardize anyone’s health in a scrimmage. VanVleet returned to the bench after a short absence.

Five — Svelte: The slimmer and trimmer Gasol made his long-anticipated debut and he didn’t disappoint. Gasol was noticeably more aggressive, especially inside the painted area which he ardently avoided all season due to his lack of health. Gasol rolled hard to the rim on his first try, drawing a foul in the process, then followed with a lumbering post-up move for another pair of free throws. He matched his season-high in free-throw attempts (7) despite being rested for the second half.

Six — Flashy: Anunoby’s statline of seven points and four assists doesn’t quite jump off the page, but he showed more hints of potential. Specifically, Anunoby’s creativity and movement with the ball in his hands was eye-opening, since that is the biggest weakness in his game. He pulled off three impressive drives: the first in which he drove it against a closeout before stopping to find Siakam open for three, the second where he froze Zach Collins with a quick crossover before finishing through contact at the rim, and a third where he again broke down Collins to open the baseline drive that triggered a swing sequence which resulted in another three. Anunoby has been putting in extra work on pick-and-roll drills in the bubble, and it’s impressive to see immediate results.

Seven — Quiet: It’s been a slow start for Norman Powell, who finished with six points on 2-of-9 shooting. Powell was in the best rhythm of his career prior to the shutdown, averaging 30 points per game to earn Eastern Conference Player of the Week honours from the week of March 9. However, that sharpness and precision isn’t quite there for him at the moment, especially in his new role where he is creating more of his own offense as a primary ball handler with the bench. Nurse should try to get Powell some run with the starters just to get him some easier scoring chances.

Eight — Depth: The second unit continues to make the case that they shouldn’t be overlooked when Nurse pairs down his rotation. Terence Davis provided an instant spark off the bench with back-to-back threes, Matt Thomas banged four threes and mixed in a few drives to the rim for his 16 points, while Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are also proven contributors on the defensive end. Don’t be surprised if the Raptors run a deeper rotation, perhaps nine or ten deep, when the season officially starts again.

Nine — Solid: Stanley Johnson has been an enigma for just about his entire NBA career, and it’s clear that Nurse doesn’t trust him. And while some of Johnson’s decisions — dribbling aimlessly into traffic or pulling up for contested twos — are painfully obvious, he did help secure the win tonight. Even though he is a small forward, Johnson was forced to play point with the third-stringers, and was tasked with beating Portland’s full-court traps. Johnson also had a transition layup and two free throws that iced the game. Realistically, there is no chance of Johnson getting anything outside of garbage time on a roster with so much talent, but if there’s one development program that can tap into his potential, it’s the Raptors. Hopefully, there is still more time left for Johnson to find his footing.

Ten — Impressive: Nurkic looks like a game-changer for the Blazers. The Blazers have been in a tailspin ever since he broke his leg, but the good news is that he looks fully healthy. Nurkic is like Gasol in many ways, as the two are both light on their feet and quick thinkers on defense despite being built solid. Nurkic is a force on the glass and is a credible rim protector (outside of LeBron James, which isn’t entirely his fault) who can also score inside and out on offense. If he were healthy all year, the Blazers wouldn’t be desperately chasing a play-in game just to get into the postseason.

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