After the biggest offseason in Toronto Raptors history, the anticipation was at an all time high Wednesday night, as the Raptors opened up the 2018/19 season — and the Kawhi Leonard era — with a 116-104 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. While this year’s Cavaliers are far from the team that knocked out Toronto the past three postseasons, the first big test would come just two days later, as the Raptors took on the Boston Celtics, before travelling to face the Washington Wizards in a tough back-to-back.
The test was passed with flying colours, as Toronto pulled away late against Boston, winning by a final of 113-101, before managing an ugly 117-113 win against the Wizards in D.C, giving the Raptors an early 3-0 record.
All eyes were fiercely locked on to Leonard the first two games (Leonard rested against Washington as he missed 73 games last year), and while there was a clear layer of rust that comes after an extended absence, the potential was there. Leonard showed flashes of the player that finished second in MVP voting just three years ago.
Leonard looked especially locked in against the Celtics. He held Boston’s 20-year old phenom Jayson Tatum to 16 points on 6/16 shooting, including just 7 points in the second half. For reference, Tatum has averaged 23.5 points on 53 per cent shooting in his other two games. Sure one of them was against the Knicks, but the other was against a Philly team that had Robert Covington — who was named to the All-Defensive First Team a season ago — guarding him.
According to voters, Covington was one of the top two defenders at his position a season ago, and Tatum torched him for 23 and 9. Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year himself, easily held him in check. God knows what havoc Leonard will wreak in game 31 once he has his legs back under him. If any Raptors fans reading this wants an excuse to get giddy, do yourselves a favour and Google ‘Kawhi Leonard embarrass Ben McLemore’. You’re welcome.
The so called ‘throw-in’ in the Kawhi trade, Danny Green looks revitalized after coming off a down year in San Antonio last season. Green, like Leonard, is a Champion and All-Defensive player himself, and the two teamed up for a tag-team block on Tatum late in the fourth quarter Friday night. Green splashed 50 per cent of his threes (7/14) over his first two games, and is basically doing a better job of what C.J. Miles is supposed to do. Because of this, Miles’ minutes have gone down to an average of just 12 per game, seven less than he got last season.
With DeRozan leaving his 34 minutes behind, and Miles now receiving less playing time, this gives head coach Nick Nurse more flexibility, and allows him to give more minutes to his young players. Yes, you’re sacrificing some shooting, but besides catch and shoot triples, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and even Norman Powell have a leg up on Miles in every other category.
While Green has averaged 33 minutes so far, it is unlikely that he will continue to play 30-plus minutes per game. His career and age tells us that it will most likely drop to the mid-to-high 20s. Anunoby, and particularly Siakam have shown significant improvements over last season — even if Siakam’s ugly jumper shatters mirrors and crinkles foreheads.
Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, who have been platooning the starting five spot, have both taken to their new roles, one that favours matchups instead of familiarity. It was a necessary switch that Dwane Casey was seemingly unable to make, as it is evident that Valanciunas should not be guarding Al Horford, but rather coming off the bench to matchup against fellow banger Aron Baynes.
Kyle Lowry, the heart and soul of the team, is playing with a chip on his shoulder, most likely directed at team President Masai Ujiri. Whatever his motivation, Lowry has been the Raptors best player thus far, averaging 23.3 points, 8.7 assists, and shooting a scorching 61 per cent from the field, including 60 per cent from three. Obviously he won’t keep up those shooting numbers, but TSN’s Josh Lewenberg points out that Lowry has career October shooting averages of 35 and 21 per cent from the field and three, respectively. In other words, this is the first time in Lowry’s career that he has started off strong, leading back to the added edge Lowry is playing with this season.