Lost in the fun of the Toronto Raptors’ opening-night win, an evening when the vibes were refreshingly light, was an old standby: The half-court offence was not good. When the Raptors weren’t getting out in transition, they were having trouble generating good shots.
It was different from last year, with the Raptors making a concerted effort to honour new head coach Darko Rajaković’s system and move the ball in the half court. It simply was not yielding much, leading the Raptors to get perhaps a bit overzealous in trying to push the pace.
“I talked to Scottie (Barnes) at halftime (and told him) that we need him to push but also to be under control,” Rajaković said. “We’ve got to continue trusting the pass.”
Nights like Friday will truly test how much the Raptors can trust the pass but also each other, not to mention themselves. In losing 104-103 in overtime to the Chicago Bulls, the Raptors made virtually every mistake possible — including, but not limited to, turning the ball over 21 times. The loss also exposed their lack of depth at guard behind Dennis Schröder and up front behind Jakob Poeltl.
DEEBO IN THE CLUTCH pic.twitter.com/EaGe5cHVvE
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) October 28, 2023
The turnovers were the headliners, and not just the ones in the half court, either. The Raptors failed to inbound the ball cleanly three times in the final 20 seconds of regulation. After the first one, Rajaković used his final timeout; the second one led to a turnover and layup, plus a potentially score-tying free throw, from DeMar DeRozan; and the third one indirectly led to DeRozan’s getting two free throws to take the lead. Luckily, he split them.
Add in Barnes and Chris Boucher fouling a jump-shooting DeRozan in the final seconds, and the Raptors were lucky to get it to overtime (when they would blow a four-point lead with 39 seconds remaining). A pair of DeRozan misses just prolonged the agony.
With Malachi Flynn benched after four brutal minutes in the first quarter, the Raptors lack a safe pair of hands behind Schröder. On one of the failed inbounds, Pascal Siakam shoved off Alex Caruso, who hit the game-winning 3 in overtime, to try to get himself open for the pass. On another, Siakam threw a perilous pass to Barnes, who tried to do way too much with it after getting to the ball, losing it instead. After Poeltl fouled out, the Raptors also failed to get the rebound off a DeRozan miss at the line, once again bailed out by a DeRozan miss on the put-back attempt.
And that was just the wild, incomprehensible stuff. There were plenty of regular old growing pains, too. On consecutive possessions early on, Poeltl and Barnes turned the ball over trying to hit Siakam and O.G. Anunoby, respectively, on cuts. Barnes had more room to make the pass than Poeltl, but both were trying to make perfect passes in tight spaces. The Raptors cleaned things up in the second half, at least until the calamitous ending.
These early mistakes are the ones Rajaković will live with if they get them where they need to go. There will be some sloppy nights in the meantime, although probably not sloppier than Friday. It would be hard to top this one.
• I was not crazy about Rajaković’s decision to use his final timeout with 20 seconds left after the first failed inbound. Still, after seeing the continued errors in that department, it is hard to criticize him, given how much work the Raptors need on that front. That is where you can critique not only the new coach but also the front office: They need more players who can get open and come to the ball with conviction and who are not afraid to get fouled and shoot free throws after. They need to be crisper in those situations, too. With six games in nine days to start the season, there will not be a ton of time to get better at that area anytime soon.
Up three with nine seconds to go, I would have preferred for Rajaković to call for the Raptors to foul the Bulls before they could attempt a 3. (Ultimately, DeRozan was fouled while taking a 3.) With no timeouts, of course, that would have led to a need for more inbounding and rebounding. The Raptors did not make it easy on their coach to weigh the pros and cons.
• This was an ugly game. The Raptors had a pair of massive droughts in the first half, going 11 and later 13 consecutive possessions without a basket. Chicago countered by going 18 straight possessions without a point, a streak spanning the second and third quarters.
• Barnes was at the heart of some of the turnover issues, with seven. He had an exceptional game, particularly in the second half. He was all over the place, finishing with 22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, his second triple-double. He made some nice decisions in pressure, setting up Gary Trent Jr. and Schröder for 3s.
All that passing is nice, but sometimes you need players to make tough shots. Barnes hit two contested turn-around jumpers. Nice to have that in the bag.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 28, 2023
• We know the limits of Rajaković’s patience with the bench. After a scoring drought that likely forced many Raptors fans to turn off the television, Flynn got the hook and didn’t return. Jalen McDaniels (minus-25 in 18 minutes) and Precious Achiuwa (minus-22 in 23 minutes, fouling out) also had poor nights.
I don’t think Rajaković is about to go to the Nick Nurse school of rotation limitation. With veterans Otto Porter Jr., Thaddeus Young and Garrett Temple sitting on the bench, however, none of those guys is guaranteed their minutes. Rajaković could also extend Gradey Dick’s minutes.
• Boucher had a nice debut after a DNP-CD (did not play — coach’s decision) Wednesday. He might want to excise standstill midrange jumpers off no ball movement from his repertoire in the future, though.
Overall, Boucher did his usual thing and finished the game strongly with some clutch free throws and big rebounds in overtime.
• Dick missed both of his 3s in the first half, but he showed some burst. He made a great play to create the first look, driving baseline before kicking it out and relocating to the corner. He will start hitting those shots soon enough. He also got beat defensively but fought hard enough to contest a layup from Ayo Dosunmu, which he ended up missing.
• Speaking of turnovers, Anunoby on the fast break with the ball can often lead to one. He still didn’t look graceful, but going reverse on Nikola Vucevic was neat. He showed great patience after catching an over-the-top pass in the third quarter to evade two defenders, Vucevic included, for a bucket.
Anunoby left the game with a leg cramp midway through the fourth quarter. He was a team-high plus-28 for the night. They could have used him late, especially on DeRozan.
• Congratulations to Rajaković, who nailed his first challenge. Coby White looked to be still moving his body when Siakam was called for an offensive foul. The replay confirmed it. This year’s new rule means a coach gets another challenge if he gets the first one right (but not another one after that). Rajaković challenged another Siakam offensive foul in the third quarter but didn’t get that one overturned. Chicago’s Billy Donovan went 2-for-2.
Interestingly, both coaches used both of their challenges before crunchtime. Well, it’s not like anything interesting to question happened in those final few minutes.
(Photo of Scottie Barnes: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)