The NBA Champion Toronto Raptors answered some big questions in their 2019-2020 season opener on Tuesday against the New Orleans Pelicans at Scotiabank Arena.
How would they be without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green? Well, if one game is any indication, these Raptors are going to be okay. Maybe even better than okay.
It doesn’t look as if there is going to be a championship hangover. Nobody is picking the Raptors to run it back this year. And the returning players have taken this as some sort of personal insult. They played on Tuesday as if they have something to prove.
On an emotional night, when the championship rings were handed out and the championship banner raised, the Raptors got big games from Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam to deliver a 130-122 overtime victory.
This is a team that showed poise down the stretch, and it’s exactly this kind of confidence that Toronto showed with Kawhi last year.
The players who needed to step up did step up.
VanVleet continues to be a human highlight show. The undersized guard was inserted into the starting lineup alongside Kyle Lowry at guard and poured in a career-high 34 points on 12-18 shooting, or 66.7% from the field. VanVleet is continuing a marvelous story of perseverance.
The native of Rockford, Illinois, was a lightly regarded guard out of Wichita State. But people got to see a glimpse of what VanVleet could become last season, especially in the playoffs when he finished second behind Leonard in NBA Finals MVP voting.
In the playoffs, VanVleet was asked to play an important defensive role against Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors when the Raptors employed a box-and-one-defense. And in the series-clinching Game 6, VanVleet responded with 22 points with five, three-pointers off the bench.
VanVleet is making a good case that he should be the starting shooting guard on most nights. Before the season, it was expected that coach Nick Nurse would platoon him with Norm Powell, and that still may be the case. But VanVleet may force Nurse’s hand with his energy and sparkling play.
Although Siakam fouled out against the Pelicans on Tuesday, the Raptors’ $130 million man and last year’s Most Improved Player in the NBA finished with 34 points, 18 rebounds and five assists to show he’s worth the four-year extension he signed before the season. Siakam showed no panic in his game, and lots of nice touch around the rim and was 2-for-5 from three-point range.
The Raptors also got a surprise performance off the bench from Terence Davis, an undrafted pickup from Ole Miss, who played 15 minutes and scored four points and added two assists and two steals.
Kyle Lowry, coming off surgery this past summer for an injured thumb, scored 22 points on a team-high 45 minutes, but don’t talk stats when you talk Lowry. It’s the other part of his game –- the fight and intensity -- that makes him special, and he didn’t disappoint in those areas on Tuesday.
OG Anunoby also did his part, playing stout defense on the Pelicans’ last possession in regulation to keep the Raptors alive. He finished with 11 points.
Marc Gasol had an off-game for him. The big center, who exercised his $25.6 million player option before the season, scored only six points on 22.2% shooting. His career average is 48.3%.
Overall, the Raptors played with energy and confidence after a slow start in which the Pelicans jumped out to a 13-4 lead. This did not look like a team weakened by the loss of Kawhi Leonard. But it was only one game.
Perhaps the only disappointment was that fans didn’t get to see Zion Williamson play for the Pelicans. The No. 1 overall draft pick and the most highly touted player since LeBron James is out with a knee injury.
The Raptors now go on the road for two games The next challenge is Friday when the Raptors visit Boston to play the Celtics. They follow up against the Bulls in Chicago on Saturday.