Balance Key To Raptors’ Season-Opening Win

Well, that was … unexpected. Some key takeaways from an eye-opening 104-96 Raptors victory over the Cavs to start the season.

– The obvious caveat that everyone’s going to throw out here is the fact that this win came against the Cavaliers, a team that won fewer games than the Raptors’ 22 victories last season. But regardless of opponent, it would be tough to duplicate the balance the Raptors received on both sides of the floor and up and down the lineup. Head coach Dwane Casey wisely said post-game “I don’t want to get too excited on the wins, and I don’t want to get too upset on losses.” The Pacers should provide a more substantial challenge in Wednesday’s home opener.

- This was a game where the Raptors defence traveled pretty well in the first game that mattered (a few Cleveland drives after halftime notwithstanding). A big positive? For each of the seven Raptors who scored in double figures tonight, I can think of a strong defensive play for each of them. Whether it was Jose Calderon moving his feet to deny Kyrie Irving baseline or DeMar DeRozan following a missed shot with a sneaky steal (Kyrie, you again. Sorry.) this team definitely seems to be buying what Casey is selling in terms of defence.

Not bad for a team that’s trying to get its man-to-man coverage up to snuff before implementing any zone defence. But Casey still sees plenty of work to do saying “I’d give us a ‘C’ probably as far as containing the ball.”

– Game 1 was unquestionably the best the Raptors have looked so far offensively and they did it by sharing the ball with 35 assists on 42 made field goals. “That was our buzz word for the night ‘Trust The Pass’ and our guys did,” said Casey post-game. “They trusted each other, found the open man and made the extra pass.”

Also much improved in Game 1, way fewer turnovers (12) and way better shooting percentage from 3-point range (9-21 3PTFGM-A for 42.9 per cent).

– Interesting to see Casey running things through Bargnani and DeRozan down the stretch with the duo scoring 13 of the team’s final 16 points. It also prompted one of the early quotes of the year from the head coach with “no disrespect to last year, but this is not a democracy, offensively. We want to make sure our offensive players, who are our closers, get the basketball.”

– So Casey gets his first win as head coach of the Raptors and two of his biggest moves came hours before tip off. Casey used a third Raptors starting lineup in as many games and the changes yielded two impressive results. James Johnson came in off the bench and while the turnovers remain an issue (four in each game including preseason so far), he was a big part of the spark the second unit brought tonight with steals, rebounds, blocks and assists. Odd stat: Johnson moves to the bench but still logs a team-high 36 minutes.

Starting Amir Johnson (13 pts, 13 rebs, 3 asts, 3 blks) at centre proved to be even more beneficial. His great chemistry with Jose Calderon offensively  (especially in the pick-and-roll) remains intact and his defence and rebounding were big factors at the other end of the floor. Amir may not always start at centre depending on the matchup, but he’ll earn a pretty major chunk of minutes up front if he can keep up that level of play.

– Speaking of Calderon, a vintage performance for quite possibly the best player on the floor tonight. Nothing forced, he was deadly from distance, lethal with the lob pass and perhaps most importantly, put DeRozan and Bargnani in a position to succeed down the stretch.

– Earlier this season assistant coach Johnny Davis told me that learning how to put teams away in the fourth consistently was a big key to the Grizzlies eventually turning the corner last season. Monday proved to be a  good confidence builder and lesson in that regard as the Raptors bent, but didn’t break after a Cavs fourth-quarter run.

– You couldn’t ask for much more in just under 18 minutes from Ed Davis. The crafty lefty power forward coupled some excellent rim protection with a perfect night from the floor offensively (7-7 FGM-A). It should be interesting to see how his role might grow over the course of this season.

– Aaron Gray sat this one out Monday night as the team was reportedly “monitoring [his] rapid heart rate.” Raptors media relations tweeted Gray will see a specialist at Cleveland Clinic in the next few days, the facility where fellow NBA players Jeff Green and Chuck Hayes were tested recently for heart-related issues. More on this as we get details.

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