The boys are back in town. The Toronto Raptors made its long-awaited return to the hard court Sunday afternoon against the Boston Celtics in front of a surprising 16,721 fans at the Air Canada Centre.
After the bitter and lengthy NBA lockout came to an end last month, the league began an abbreviated pre-season this week as teams finalized rosters and are now focusing on getting into game shape.
The Celtics barely hung on for a 76-75 win as Raptors forward Andrea Bargnani missed an easy put-back attempt at the buzzer. However, the Italian led the Raptors with a game-high 16 points and added nine rebounds. Ed Davis finished with a double-double with 10 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
The Raptors went on a late 13-2 run to tie the game with just over two minutes remaining as the Celtics rested its entire starting lineup down the stretch and played its young players. Reserve centre Greg Stiemsma tapped in his own rebound to give Boston a one point lead with 12.6 seconds remaining.
With a chance to win the game, the Raptors got the ball in the hands of DeMar DeRozan, but tight defence from the Celtics changed his shot in the air and bounced off the rim. Bargnani followed up a tap in from the side of the net but that rattled out as well.
“We got to look at the positive thing of today. We lost the game – offensively was a really bad game, but defensively we did a pretty good job,” said Bargnani.
“Coming from a tough week was really tough. We had tired legs and nobody was really hot. Nobody made a lot of shots…the effort was there definitely and that’s the most important thing.”
The fallout from the NBA lockout was expected to have an impact on fans and that the attendance would be affected in certain markets around the league. Although it was just a pre-season game, fans in Toronto came out to support its team and the turnout even surprised some players.
“The fan support is always there. It’s been here as an opponent and it’s here now that I’m on the home team,” said new free agent signing and Toronto-native Jamaal Magloire.
“I’m happy, I’m elated that we had so much support tonight. It caught me off guard, it being an exhibition game, but again this is Toronto and they’re fanatics.”Added Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, “The fans – great like always. After everything, the long summer, they were back.
“It’s a pre-season game – it was unbelievable. Thanks to feel that support with the team and like DeMar (DeRozan) said before the game hopefully they’re going to enjoy the season. It’s a totally different mentality and we’re going to be a really good team.”Putting the D in Defence
The Raptors had some new faces in the lineup, but the biggest impact this season will come from its new Head Coach Dwane Casey.
Last year Casey was an assistant coach with the NBA championship winning Dallas Mavericks. In his three seasons with Dallas, Casey was credited with helping Dirk Nowitski and the rest of the team to play better defence and translated into regular season and playoff success.
His principles of playing sound defence made him the prime candidate for the Raptors in search of a new coach during the offseason. Toronto was one the worst defensive teams in the league the past two seasons and now Casey has been entrusted with the undoubtedly tough task of turning the Raptors around.
If Sunday was any indication – the team is listening to its new coach and buying into the defence-first philosophy.
“I thought our defence was fantastic,” said Casey. “We have what we call multiple stops and we had a lot of those. We try to get seven per game and we reached our goal with that.”
“We’ll spend more time on offence but not at the expense of our defence. Our whole goal is to build this process and it’s a process - defensively keep that mindset for 66 games.”
Magloire was part of the Miami Heat team that lost to the Mavericks in the NBA finals. He sees similarities between the system he played last season with the Heat and what Casey is trying to implement with the Raptors.
“We were the second best defensive team last year in Miami and a lot of principles are the same,” said Magloire. “Coach Casey from day one has been stressing stopping our opponent and accountability and that’s the kind of mentality we had last year that got us to the finals.”
“I think he set the standard in the first day of practice and we have all bought into it. It’s just a matter of doing it over and over and over again until it’s instinctual.”
In years past, the Raptors had tremendous difficulty getting stops, but limited the Celtics to just over 39 per cent shooting. And Boston is not exactly a pushover. Veteran Paul Pierce was not with the team due to an ankle injury, but the Celtics still had Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. Holding its opponent to just 76 points was quite the accomplishment.
Bargnani, in particular, has had a lot of difficulty playing defence well in the past.
Although he recognizes that he needs to improve individually, he also is aware that true success will result only from a team defence mentality.
“It’s not a change for me. It’s a change for everybody because last year we were one of the worst teams defensively,” said Bargnani. “It’s not one guy, two guys, three guys – it’s everybody. Everybody got to get better, got to make the extra effort to make this team a defensive team.”
With all the focus on defence, the Raptors did not have an offensive game to be proud of. Toronto turned the ball over 21 times leading to 26 Celtics points and shot just over 38 per cent from the floor.
“Offensively, I said yesterday we may throw it up in the stands and we did 21 times,” said Casey. “I liked our effort and I liked our toughness when we needed it. We needed a couple more at the end to crack in and get some bodies on the offensive boards at the end.
“But overall, I was pleased with our effort. Now we just have to put our heads into it and not turn it over and take care of the ball. We will work more offensively this week.”
Considering the offensive talent on the team and number of points the Raptors were able to score in last season, none of the players are concerned with the offensive game.
“I’m not worried about the offence,” said Magloire. “I think we have guys that can score at will. I think right now, especially during the exhibition season, is making good habits and starting good habits.”
“In order to give ourselves a chance to win any game in the regular season we’re going to have to be more accountable and we’re going to have to have to stop our opponent.”Added Bargnani, “I’m sure the offensive rhythm is going to come. We just need a little time. We’ve been focused a lot on the defence – we didn’t do many drills to find the balance on the offensive end.”
The Raptors have two more days of practice to work on the defence and offence before having another crack at the Celtics in a re-match. Both teams will wrap up the pre-season on Wednesday night in Boston at TD Garden with tipoff at 7:30 p.m.
This article was originally published on Oye! Times