10 things from Raptors-Rockets: Defence a work in progress

William Lou
NBA reporter

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 118-111 loss to the Houston Rockets in the second game of a preseason showcase in Tokyo.

One — First things first: Before anything else, the Raptors need to shore up their defence, which is not at all surprising in preseason. Their potential is obvious — at one point James Harden was screening to shake OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam only to find Pat McCaw or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — but they’re inconsistent and sloppy. Nick Nurse demands that his players play tight and aggressively on the perimeter, but that takes getting used to, and the new additions are struggling with it. But more than anything else, it’s the rotations that have to be installed. Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka have been great in that regard, while everyone else is a step behind.

Two — Buck Hunter: The Raptors will have to search every night for a secondary scorer, and tonight that role was served by Norman Powell, who exploded for five 3s and 22 points. Offensively, Powell has been sharp since the outset of camp, and the improvements in his jumper from last season seem to be carrying over as his shot looks tighter and more repeatable. Powell doesn’t supply much else besides scoring, but his willingness to shoot is something that this team otherwise lacks, and that’s what should keep Powell in the starting lineup.

Three — Not great, but still effective: It’s a testament to Pascal Siakam’s development that a 16-point game with seven rebounds, four assists, and two steals on 6-of-11 shooting can still feel underwhelming. Siakam excelled at everything he worked on last season, be it the corner three or the transition baskets, but the new aspects of his game remain a mystery. Through two preseason games, Siakam has yet to unveil the midrange game that was the focus of his off-season training, and it wasn’t clear how the Raptors were going to feature him within the flow of the offence. Siakam will always be productive just off scraps, but Nurse should consider establishing Siakam early in games with a few post-ups or isolations at the top of the floor, just so that he can find his rhythm and work from there.

Four — Conducting the offence: If Fred VanVleet wants to eventually become a starting point guard, these double-digit assist games must become more frequent. VanVleet struggled with his own shot (he’ll be much better with Kyle Lowry making plays for him) but he still contributed by facilitating for his teammates, most notably in transition to punish the Rockets for their sloppy defence. VanVleet seems to have finally found some budding chemistry with Serge Ibaka, which will be crucial because those two will be counted on to carry the bench at times. It also looks as if VanVleet’s quickness and burst is improved from last season, but that could also just be a reflection of the sluggish defensive intensity of preseason.

Five — Slow but steady: Marc Gasol made his preseason debut after starting off slow in training camp, and it was clear that the 34-year-old is easing his way back after a long summer. Gasol was stuck propping up the bench with a lineup reminiscent of his final Grizzlies days, and his playmaking from the top of the floor almost made it work. It’s clear that Gasol know what to do and where to be, but he just needs a few more reps to improve his conditioning. Based on the way the lineups are shaking out, it might not be a surprise if Gasol comes off the bench to start the year, or if he platoons with Ibaka. There’s a case to be made with both veterans, and mostly, Nurse can’t go wrong either way.

Six — Knows his role: OG Anunoby was arguably the best defender on the floor for the Raptors, and he needs to maintain that shutdown status to keep his spot in the starting five. Offensively, Anunoby remains limited as his handle and coordination need significant refinement, but all he needs to do is knock down corner 3s to be an adequate fifth option. It’s looking like Dwane Casey was right about Anunoby from the jump: Barring an unforeseen leap, Anunoby’s future in the league is to be a P.J. Tucker type, and there’s no shame in that.

Seven — Up and down: There’s plenty to like about Terence Davis and it was his confidence that stood out Thursday. Russell Westbrook made a point to bully Davis and go at the rookie throughout the game, but it didn’t faze Davis whatsoever as he zoomed past Westbrook for an and-one in the second half. But it’s also clear that Davis is rough around the edges, as he makes plenty of rookie mistakes like missing blockouts, rushing into turnovers, and taking contested shots. As with any other undrafted player, Davis needs to cut down on his mistakes before he features in a prominent role. Nurse clearly likes Davis already as he was the first player off the bench, but he should probably spend at least a month in the G League to get some reps.

Eight — Rotation outlook: By the looks of it, none of the Raptors’ newest signings will have a guaranteed role to start. Davis, Dewan Hernandez and Matt Thomas are too raw, Hollis-Jefferson is too erratic, and Stanley Johnson is showing shades of Joey Graham. If everyone is healthy, the Raptors need one of those five to pop. For now, Hollis-Jefferson is in the lead, but if Johnson finds his confidence, he still has a good shot.

Nine — Strange cat: Nurse must see something in McCaw, but he hasn’t really shown enough to warrant a consistent spot in the rotation. McCaw might have the handles to play the point and his defence is strong, but he just isn’t willing to shoot, which bogs down the offence. He has the quickness to occasionally pressure the basket, but he’s not particularly strong with his finishes and he’s always looking for the pass, which the Rockets figured out after his first preseason shift. For now, McCaw’s role should be to mop up minutes as a third-string point guard, or as a defensive specialist in short spurts.

Ten — It’s ridiculous: Look, everyone understands that three is more than two, but where does it end? The Rockets attempted sixty-four 3-pointers, which made for just an unwatchable product. It’s one thing for Harden to take shuffling step-backs that technically aren’t travels because of the elusive gather rule, but for G-Leaguers like Danuel House to fire away without any shame? Who really wants to watch a basketball game where the two sides combine for 101 3-point attempts?

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