It would have been difficult to script a better first game in the Rudy Gay era…

Raptors 98, Clippers 73

-Rudy Gay seemed very at ease after a couple ugly misses in the first half. He set screens, moved the basketball when double-teamed and scored from everywhere on the court. He finished with 20 points (8-16 FG), three rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block 30 minutes. It was a good call by Dwane Casey to not start Rudy in his first game as a Raptor, as coming off the bench took some of the pressure off his debut.

-Although I believe Ed Davis could turn into an all-star calibre player, I still think the Raptors improved their team dramatically through the Rudy Gay trade. Replacing Ed Davis with Amir Johnson is not a huge downgrade (if it’s a downgrade at all). Replacing Landry Fields with Rudy Gay is a massive upgrade. Ending the point guard controversy and giving Kyle Lowry 30+ minutes per game will also make this team much better. This core of young talent should make fans very excited.

-Critics of the deal primarily point to Rudy’s contract. However, the value of any contract is irrelevant unless it prevents a team from future spending. Toronto has never been a popular free agent destination, as you can count the number of reputable FA’s on one hand, so this likely won’t handicap Bryan Colangelo down the road. The Raptors are also widely rumoured to have Andrea Bargnani on the trading block, which could alleviate over $10 million in salary commitments.

-Another big criticism of the Rudy Gay trade from Toronto’s perspective was that the Raptors would have too many scorers and ball movement would suffer. However, led by Kyle Lowry playing an extremely unselfish brand of basketball, Toronto finished with 30 assists on 38 made field goals tonight. If Lowry continues to play this way (6 shots, 8 assists), then there’s no reason why Gay, DeRozan and a very unselfish front court of Amir and JV can’t co-exist successfully.

-Gay is a very well-rounded player who plays too passively at times, but there is plenty of reason to believe he could blossom and find another level here in Toronto. For starters, this is the first time he has been traded in his NBA career (also traded on draft day) and that often serves as a wake-up call for underachieving players. Secondly, Gay was playing in a system in Memphis that didn’t suit his strengths. Memphis played inside-out basketball and that turned Gay into the third or fourth option. He became more of a spot-up shooter as opposed to a creator off the dribble. In Toronto, he’ll likely be the primary option and he’ll have the benefit of playing with two great screen-and-roll big men – Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. Finally, being re-united with his best friend is bound to be a good thing for both Gay and Lowry.

-The frontcourt combination of Aaron Gray and an under-the-weather Amir Johnson were fantastic all evening and soundly outplayed LA’s highly touted frontcourt of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Gray and Amir combined for 17 rebounds in the first half alone and 28 in the game.

-Gray has now recorded 10+ rebounds in a career-high three straight games. He continued to show some ability as a roll man, finishing nicely on a couple first quarter passes from DeRozan and Lowry. He also banked home a surprising hook-shot from eight feet out in the third quarter – a shot that I didn’t think Aaron had in his repertoire. He could have a future on this team as the backup centre if he continues to lose weight and improve his offensive game.

-No question that Amir Johnson was the best player on the floor for Toronto tonight. All signs are pointing to Amir becoming the power forward of the future in Toronto and I don’t think there is one fan of this team that has an issue with that. Amir has seven years of NBA experience and yet he is just 25 years of age. He plays like a veteran and has plenty of room to grow – very intriguing potential for a guy with great work ethic.

-The addition of Rudy Gay will take a lot of pressure off DeMar DeRozan as a scorer. DeMar can now slide into the number two role, to which he is much more suited. That should allow him to expand other parts of his game. We saw DeRozan drop three quick dimes to Rudy in the first quarter and then he made an incredible block on Jamal Crawford late in the second quarter. This was the easiest 19 points I’ve seen DeMar score all season. As Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler put it, “DeMar DeRozan is having the time of his life.”

-Critics of DeMar like to point out that he is very limited as a passer. Well, just as he does with every other weakness in his game, DeMar is improving his passing – he now has 7+ assists in 4 of his last 6 games.

-Landry Fields hit his first three-pointer of the season. Finally! Landry will likely be in the second unit for Toronto’s next game, where he should help a group that struggles to move the ball at times.

-Despite 17 points on 6-9 shooting from John Lucas, the Raptors would be wise to try and find some competition for the backup PG spot.  I’m still not convinced that JL3 can run a second unit.

-This roster has the potential to be an excellent defensive team. They locked up the Clippers all night and held them to 29% shooting in the first half. There were a few things that contributed to this excellent defensive effort – primarily, Chris Paul was injured for the Clippers and Eric Bledsoe isn’t nearly as adept at running an offence. But Toronto’s defence also deserves credit. With Calderon and Bargnani traded/out, the 10-man rotation that Dwane Casey employed on Friday was an extremely athletic group (okay, maybe not Aaron Gray).

-Toronto can and will play at a much faster pace with Gay and Lowry in the lineup as opposed to Fields and Calderon. The Raptors went very quickly from having one guy you trust to finish at the rim on the break (DeMar) to having three. The potential of a small-ball lineup featuring Lowry, Ross, DD, Rudy and Amir is also very tantalizing.

-In the closing seconds, Caron Butler pulled a pretty gutless move on Jonas Valanciunas. With the Clippers down 27 points, Butler went up to supposedly shake hands with JV….

Raptors player of the game: Amir Johnson – 19 Pts (7-9 FG, 5-8 FT), 16 Reb (ties career-high), 3 Ast, 1 Stl, 1 Blk, 2 TO in 37:24

Clippers player of the game: Nobody deserves it

If Toronto can sneak out a win against Miami on Sunday afternoon, there is potential for a great start to the Rudy Gay era, as the next three games after that come against Boston, Indiana and New Orleans. Even if they don’t beat Miami, I’m more interested to see if the good habits from this game carry over.