Game No. 1 – Raptors 104, Cavaliers 96

I thought of titling these recap posts  “Four Quarters,” and simply listing four observations and points from the game that I wanted to discuss. But if you know me or have read enough of my posts, you probably know that I’d have trouble only talking about four things after a game.

So, after coming up with six points for my first recap of the season, then coming up with six points after tonight’s game, and figuring maybe it’s a good omen in a season of 66 games, I thought, why not go with six?

With that, here’s the first of many of my post-game reaction posts this season:

“Fouling Out: Six Personal Thoughts on the Game.”

1- Dwane Casey threw us a couple of surprises in the starting lineup, giving Rasual Butler and Amir Johnson starting nods instead of James Johnson and Jamaal Magloire. I was pleased to see Amir get the start (and he more than showed he earned it with a workmanlike performance of 13 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks) after advocating for it last week. As for Butler in for James Johnson, I didn’t really mind it. Rasual seems like a pretty seasoned vet who knows his role (he only took four shots), and James’ energy makes him a natural off of the bench anyway. Plus, it’s not like Johnson’s minutes took a hit as a result of not starting, as he was rewarded with a heavy 36.

2- Aaron Gray didn’t play after he was found to have an elevated heart rate. Hopefully Aaron is alright and can get back on the floor to give the Raps some added depth in the middle, but obviously, when it comes to your heart and overall health, basketball takes a back seat. For Gray’s sake, here’s hoping this is just a one-time thing and doesn’t turn out to be anything like the heart problem that caused Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson to undergo a couple of procedures or the condition that sidelined Celtics forward Jeff Green for the season.

3- I don’t know whether to call it the “Casey Effect,” a culture change, a one-game aberration, or a product of playing the hapless Cavaliers, but whatever that was on the defensive end on opening night, I’m in love with it. Yes, it was just the Cavs, who I predict will be battling with the Raps near or at the bottom of the East all season, but still, give Casey and Toronto some credit when it is clearly due. The Raptors set a franchise record for opening night blocks with nine, and they did it at the end of the first half. Other than a couple of lapses here and there, which even elite defensive teams experience from time to time, the Raptors’ defence was simply lights out. Toronto held the Cavs to 41.2 per cent shooting (35-of-85), 30 per cent from behind the arc (six-of-20) and 44 points in the paint.

The veteran additions Bryan Colangelo brought in can all play defence and the young guys (DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Jerryd Bayless) are all either naturally good defenders at their position or are athletic enough to become good defenders. If the weak links in the defensive chain (Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon) can even give the Raptors average defence on a consistent basis, this team has the ability to be a good defensive team right away. Not great, but good.

4- Wow, Jose Calderon, that’s all I can say. Most of you know I’m not exactly the biggest Calderon fan, but a lot of the problems I had with him over the last few years (lack of defence, lack of consistency) can be attributed to nagging injuries. What I saw from Jose on Monday night might have been one of his best performances as a Toronto Raptor. He had a burst I haven’t seen from him in years, he knocked down his jumper when asked, he fought hard to keep his man in front of him on the defensive end and made some passes that left me with my jaw dropped. I’ve always thought Calderon’s impressive assist-to-turnover ratio was a product of usually opting for the very safe play and pass, but Jose threw some beautiful lobs and passes in traffic in Cleveland, and still ended up with just one turnover to go along with 11 assists.

While Jose’s ability to maintain an energy level even close to what he showed on Monday night for 66 games is unlikely, I have nothing negative to say about “Numero Ocho” after a magical performance.

5- Speaking of Jose, how about the Raptors’ ball-sharing? The Raps piled up 35 assists on 42 made field goals, an outstanding 83 per cent of their shots made. An offence that looked slow, confused and downright ugly in two pre-season games against the stingy Celtics, moved the ball around, made the extra pass, found the open man and flowed nicely overall in Cleveland. Scoring 104 points in Cleveland and beating the Cavs is nothing to brag about, but sharing the ball the way the Raptors did on opening night is impressive, no matter who the opponent is.

6- The sixth point I wanted to make, about balanced scoring, is a direct result of that beautiful ball movement. To get to 104 points, the Raptors had every one of the 10 players who played record an assist, make a field goal and score at least two points. In addition, seven of those 10 players got to double digits in scoring, with no player scoring more than 15 points. Again, I don’t care who the opponent is, when you score 100-plus points in the NBA without having a single guy score more than 15, that’s just impressive offensive balance. Perhaps most impressive is that out of the 79 shots the Raptors took, no one player attempted more than 14 of them. For a team that often frustrated me for having at least one guy trying to do too much or playing outside of his role, Dwane Casey seems to have gotten this bunch of guys to buy in to a team-first philosophy.

At the end of the day, the Raptors won a game I expected them to win in a season where I expect them to win just 18-to-20 out of 66 games, so don’t interpret my pleasure in this performance as new found optimism for this season.

But if this team brings the defensive approach they brought to Cleveland to most games this season and shares the ball the way they did against the Cavs, they will find themselves in a lot of competitive games, and that will be both encouraging and exciting to watch.

So, what do I take from this game?

Well I still think this team will lose a lot of games, I just think they’re going to entertain us while doing it.

Raptors Player of the Game: Jose Calderon -30 Min, 15 Pts, 5-9 FG, 3-5 3Pt, 2-2 FT, 6 Reb, 11 Ast, 1 TO (Amir could be here too)

Cavaliers Player of the Game: Ramon Sessions – 22 Min, 18 Pts, 6-12 FG, 2-4 3Pt, 4-5 FT, 4 Reb, 6 Ast, 1 Stl (Varejao, like Amir Johnson, could have easily been the choice for Cleveland)