Raptors Takeaways: Gasol returns, Anunoby’s stock keeps rising

The Raptors own the Magic Kingdom. Let’s just say it right now.

With their 110-104 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the defending NBA champions improved to 2-0 in exhibition play with one more game slated for Tuesday afternoon against the Phoenix Suns — before things get started for real on Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Going undefeated in games that don’t matter isn’t why the Raptors have committed to spending about 14 weeks in Florida, but it’s a nice start. Sunday’s game was played mostly by each team’s deep bench after the midpoint in the third quarter and the Raptors didn’t shoot it very well – only 38 per cent – but they made 17 threes to Portland’s seven, which always helps. Pascal Siakam had 18 points and three triples in just 25 minutes, while Serge Ibaka led all scorers with 19 points and had three triples (on five attempts) of his own.

Livestream the Raptors’ quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.

Some takeaways:

1. Was that … Marc Gasol on the floor, playing basketball?

Why yes, yes it was. Technically Gasol hasn’t been out of action for nearly six months, it just seems that way. After being sidelined for the second time in the regular season with a hamstring problem on Jan. 28, Gasol did make it back to the floor for one game before the league went on hiatus on March 11, but Gasol has missed 24 of the Raptors’ 64 games and his return to action was delayed that much more when he was kept out of their first scrimmage for lack of a big to match with on the Houston Rockets.

That was not the case with the Trail Blazers, who are reintegrating bigs Jusuf Nurkic and Zack Collins from injuries of their own and also roll out Hassan Whiteside.

What could we expect from Gasol?

“He’ll be fresh,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said, jokingly, before the ball went up.

The man himself was pumped: “[It felt] really good [to play]. Really good. Really exciting,” Gasol said. “I know it might have been a scrimmage but I was geeked up the whole day. Excited about it, and happy to help the team.”

He didn’t really. His first action in more than four months was not the occasion to show how Gasol would translate his leaner, more muscled frame into on-court action.

He started in a “Jumbo” lineup alongside Serge Ibaka but there was almost nothing to evaluate. He was limited to 10 minutes by design, and didn’t play in the second half at all. There were no clever assists or signs that he was ready to assert himself more offensively in a way that the two-time all-star only rarely has as a Raptor.

“You always wanna play more but you know that you gotta build it up,” said Gasol, who scored three points – all on free throws – and had four rebounds. “We know when the important times come and when the big games come, you have to be ready to take those bigger minutes. So we’ve gotta build it up a little bit, and that’s okay.”

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There is time for all that. The playoffs are still nearly a month away.

“I mean, he’s looked good, he’s played well [in practice],” Nurse said before the game. “I’ve noticed some things, some more when we’ve played 1-on-1 contests, those tournaments, he’s played very well in those. He’s looked like he’s got a little better finish on his fallaway and some of those signature moves he used to do. They look good now, but we’ll just see what we see [in the game]. I think the speed and getting closer to a real game is [when we’re] really going to see if there’s a difference.”

So was that Gasol out there? Yes it was, but we still haven’t seen him yet.

2. Injuries were one of the Raptors’ pre-pandemic storylines. They were second in the NBA in man games lost to injury and had every significant rotation player other than OG Anunoby miss at least 10 games. So it was with some trepidation that Nurse relayed that versatile wing defender Pat McCaw – one of only two Raptors who didn’t play on Friday – wouldn’t see any minutes again.

“It’s a recurring thing that he’s already been out for,” Nurse said. “But, again, we’re still in the evaluating process about where we can go with it. It may be something he can play through.”

McCaw was out for the month of November after having arthroscopic surgery to remove a benign mass in his left knee. Something to monitor, obviously.

More concerning was watching Fred VanVleet immediately leave the floor after getting the wrong end of a knee-on-knee collision in the first quarter. He jogged off immediately, which was encouraging and he was on his feet on the bench in the second half, looking comfortable. He didn’t return to the game and these things can occasionally stiffen up overnight. His night was done after five minutes.

The expectation is he’ll be fine.

“There’s always a little immediate concern whenever anybody goes down … you don’t want to lose anybody in a scrimmage,” Nurse said. “He can play through a lot of pain, no doubt about it, but there’s no sense in going through now.”

A lot of the excitement around the Raptors chances to defend is the presumption that they’ll be an even better team than they were with all their pieces healthy and ready to go, really for the first time this season. Watching VanVleet go down – even if it’s not serious – or wondering about McCaw’s availability are reminders that just because the Raptors have already had their share, it doesn’t mean they’re completely out of the woods, injury-wise.

3. The Raptors’ success in developing basketball players may be as simple as not putting their players in a box when it comes to envisioning what they could become.

When OG Anunoby was drafted — and certainly through most of his first two seasons as a pro — the thinking and the hope was that he would become an effective ‘three-and-D’ player – someone who could defending the two or three and offensively keep the floor spread and otherwise largely stay out of the way of the high-volume scorers. It’s a valuable job; the best at combining those two attributes can earn $20-million a year or more.

But add the ability to attack the basket to that mix? Toss in a player who can attack mismatches on offense as well as squelch them on defense? Now you’re cooking with gas.

Anunoby showed some remarkable progress against Portland. It caught his teammates’ eyes as he broke down the defense off the bounce and made plays over and over again.

“[His improvement] is dramatic,” Gasol said. “You can see it every day that it’s something he works at relentlessly. If you work on it, you have to use it in the games. I think OG, we need him to do that. He has to be someone that is aggressive, that plays on the catch. He’s not gonna get plays called a lot for him but whenever he catches it, somebody’s going to be closing out, he has to make a quick decision, either shoot it or drive it, and he’s doing a great job.

Anunoby has had the defensive chops almost since Day 1 and he’s showing signs of being a more and more reliable three-point threat – he was shooting 50 per cent from deep in the last seven games before the hiatus and had improved to a very respectable 38 per cent from three for the season.

But the best might be yet come. Anunoby has only just turned 23 and missed most of his second year of college at Indiana due to a torn ACL. In his second season with the Raptors, injuries and family issues limited his opportunities. He missed the Raptors’ entire championship run due to complications from an appendectomy.

So maybe we shouldn’t be shocked to see his growth still coming in leaps and bounds, but it’s eye-popping regardless.

Anunoby is massive – he plays comfortably at 250 pounds or more – but he has remarkable quickness. It looks like he’s used all those individual workouts to tighten up his ball-handling and improve his balance when he attacks the point (Anunoby falling awkwardly after his drives go wrong is a bit of a trademark.)

In the first half, he used his dribble three times to blow past Blazers defenders, draw the defense and snap the ball out to an open shooter. They weren’t cheapies either; this was Anunoby using the dribble to shift the balance of a defender, and then changing direction and exploding past once his man was over-committed — and then making the right decision from there.

That’s not a play Anunoby could’ve made last year or was even projected to make this year. But he’s making them and looking fantastic doing it.

It’s probably greedy to think the Raptors could have another player explode into superstardom from nowhere, as Pascal Siakam has, but Anunoby makes you believe.

4. The Raptors have loads of depth players, but in the playoffs it’s their depth in specific roles that might matter most. It’s been interesting that in two exhibition games Matt Thomas has played a healthy dose of minutes – 14 and 19, respectively – and has looked more comfortable than at any time in his rookie season.

He’s 6-of-10 from three through his 33 minutes, which is almost to be expected given that he’s shooting 46.7 per cent from long range this season. That would be second in the NBA if he had enough attempts to qualify among the leaders.

But Thomas’s confidence is shining through. He’s looking to push the ball past his defender off the catch if he’s being crowded at the line – as he inevitably is – and looks decisive when he gets into that next layer of defense looking to either score on some in-between looks or keep the ball moving. It’s not new, he says, it’s just new at the NBA level.

“That is definitely something I have done my entire life,” he said after leading all bench scorers with 16 points in 19 minutes. “But at the same time there is no substitute for experience. As the year progressed and then had this hiatus, I didn’t really slow down. I viewed it more as an off-season opportunity for me to really improve my game and my body. I’m just trying to do whatever the team needs from me to help this team get wins here.

“My role is still to come in and knock down shots. But like you said, with my shooting threat teams are going to fly by me and I have to be able to make a play and sometimes that’s driving a gap and finding a teammate or creating a play for myself.”

He has caught his coach’s eye, and if he can keep it up Thomas might find some minutes in the rotation even as it tightens when the games really matter.

“I think it was really noticeable when we came back from the break that he was not just shooting shots; he was becoming more of a playmaker even more than you’ve seen in these last two games,” said Nurse, who played Thomas at point guard with the second unit at times. “He was really almost becoming a scorer in some of our scrimmages, like, really hard to handle and again, just improving; a guy working on his skill work, getting confident.

“He’s developed some more range so that [he] even stretches the defense more so it gives him more space to operate with that. If they do press up on him he can go around them, and he’s just talented, you know, he really knows how to play and he’s figuring it out.”

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