Watching the Toronto Raptors (1-0) open their season on Wednesday night by grinding through 48 eyesore minutes of a 93-87 win over the Boston "Jeff Green is our go-to guy" Celtics brought to mind the optimistic-but-measured words of Masai Ujiri, Dwane Casey and others heading into the year. Club coaches and executives steered well clear of any bold playoff talk, but offered vague promises of 'playing tough' and 'not making it easy for opponents'.
Those words actually proved to be quite fitting, at least for one game. Aggressive paint play and on-the-ball defence helped the Raps get the better of their now-toothless opposition in what was a sloppy, 39-turnover affair. After trading baskets early in the fourth quarter, an Amir Johnson three handed the home team a four-point lead which it would not relinquish the rest of the way despite big nights from Boston's Green (game-high 25 points on 8-16 shooting) and Brandon Bass (17 points on 6-7 shooting and a game-best +12).
For the Raptors, Rudy Gay paced the starters with 19 points to up his trade value assert himself as the club's No. 1 scoring option.
The new-look portion of the club has already been maligned some, including by me. But it made the most of its few opportunities (of Toronto's starting unit, only Johnson played fewer than 30 minutes) by shooting well (12-24), rebounding (Tyler Hansbrough's game-high 12 boards sparked the team to a 48-33 advantage) and outscoring their Celt's counterparts 29-21. Yes, Boston's bench, comprised on this night of Jordan Crawford, Kris Humphries, Courtney Lee, Phil Pressey and Canadian debutante Kelly Olynyk, doesn't exactly intimidate, but the Raps' second unit did the job they needed to do on account of some standout performances. In particular, Hansbrough earned himself a few new fans with five offensive boards and a couple of nice put-back dunks, while Landry Fields turned some heads with an all-around game that included eight points on 4-7 shooting, six rebounds and some all-court hustle that was lacking for much of last season.
Credit where credit is due: the Raptors organization knows how to do in-arena entertainment. Down With Webster may have been a dud, but fans were kept engaged by their ThunderStix, countless t-shirt tosses, some amusing commercial break fare (including an acrobatic team of dunk specialists that I wouldn't mind seeing again), an excellent roster introduction done on an elevated catwalk and a new "Noise!" banner that shouldn't be needed, but still made for a cool visual as it was unfurled by Game Ops staff across the court during a fourth quarter break. The biggest credit, however, goes to an excellent handling of the mascot situation, with "Stripes" being introduced as a clear, distinct, separate character with his own back story who has the Raptor's blessing to take over. He doesn't appear to have the gymnastics background that the guy who dons the Raptor suit does, but that won't be necessary so long as he can engage with fans and show personality. And having him debut by pie-ing a 'Celtics fan' in the face is pretty much a can't-miss proposition.
It is WAY too early to start expressing concern over individual players (or team trends, for that matter). So viewing opening night in a stand-alone vacuum, DeMar DeRozan was pretty terrible. The fourth-year shooting guard who is beginning his four-year, $38 million contract extension played more minutes (40:24) than anyone on Wednesday night and still couldn't find any kind of rhythm along the way to a 13-point, 6-19 shooting performance. He also struggled with the ball, coughing up five turnovers, and missed both of his only two free throws of the game.
12 of 23
Yep, that was the Raptors' prowess from the free throw line on Wednesday. Yikes.
One man's extremely unofficial, unscientific ranking of Raptor popularity, as measured by fan reactions to their names being called during last night's roster introductions: 1) Valanciunas, 2) Gay, 3) Hansbrough, 4) Terrence Ross, 5) DeRozan, Last) Julyan Stone.
If you're looking for early evidence of tanking on the part of the Celtics (you know, aside from the state of their roster), look past Rajon Rondo's legitimate need to recover from ACL surgery and Jared Sullinger's one-game ban for domestic violence charges levied against him during the off-season (even though the charges were dismissed). The most telling sign early on is the DNP-CD levied against MarShon Brooks, who probably ranks as the third- or fourth-best Celtic as of right now.
Forgot to do a "Next Up" section in my last preview piece, so my first prediction of the season comes ahead of Friday night's tilt in Atlanta (7:30pm, SN1). In the Hawks' season-opening loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Jeff Teague led the club with 24 points while Paul Milsaap filled in nicely for Josh Smith (20 points, 5 boards) and Cartier Martin somehow put up 17 points off the bench.
Prediction: Hawks 107, Raps 99 (45-19 this season)