Raptors Launch Rajakovic Era with Victory Over Timberwolves
TORONTO: What is success? Well.
Winning in professional sports ought to be simple. They maintain score for this reason, and theoretically, those who can help win are paid more than those who can't.
However, as there is only one side that can win the season's final game, take home the trophy, and declare themselves the winners, the meaning of success invariably varies depending on the situation.
Nobody in the Toronto Raptors' vicinity has been discussing trophies or titles. They don't seem like that team, or they aren't. They won 41 games in the previous season, their first in four postseason victories.
After taking over from Nick Nurse, who assisted in bringing Toronto its one and only championship back in 2019, the stated goals as the 2023–24 season and the Darko Rajakovic era came to an end were less about specifics and more about process as the new head coach got a feel for his team and his role.
"I think what makes a successful season for me is the quality of our play and how we keep getting better every week," Rajakovic stated as his team prepared to welcome the Minnesota Timberwolves. "The 82-game season is about to begin. On our team, there are several guys with exceptional talent that we are considering. It's about how well we work together, how closely we support one another, and how we develop over the course of the season. My goal is for us to play our best basketball at the end of the season in order to keep improving as the season goes on.
Alright, small steps. The Raptors' first NBA victory, a 97-94 victory over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves, was celebrated with a loud cheer and an ice-water shower in the locker room. However, the squad did not exactly celebrate like a championship team would.
34 fast break points, a strong 14 of 35 performance from three-point range, and a collective defensive effort that held the Timberwolves to 34% shooting overall and 8 of 31 from outside the arc were just a few of the positive aspects of the game.
"I thought our guys executed the gameplan really well, especially against [Minnesota star Anthony] Edwards," Rajakovic remarked. "I believed they battled for each and every item."
Perhaps it should be the ultimate goal, along with any other: work hard and wonderful things will come. Nevertheless, Raptors center Jakob Poeltl made an effort to define success a bit more precisely:
Poeltl, an eight-year veteran who led Toronto to a 15-9 record in games he started after being re-acquired at the trade deadline last season, expressed his desire to "make noise in the playoffs" and reach the postseason. We want to demonstrate that we are one of those teams that enters with low expectations and has the potential to upset some people, but we also want a fresh group to unite and truly demonstrate that we are capable of playing the proper way and developing inside the system.
We have a few new players, a new coaching staff, and a new system, so it might not be an easy start to the season. However, if we can start building something that can be very successful in the upcoming years and demonstrate our potential, I think we can have a successful season."
Let's begin with a successful evening, shall we? The Toronto Raptors are unbeaten, and even though their first victory lacked much style, it will still look stunning in the standings.
One of the new faces on the team, Dennis Schroder, a free-agent point guard and MVP of the FIBA Basketball World Cup, led the Raptors with 22 points and seven assists on 8 of 17 shooting in his 32 minutes. Schroder became the first Raptor to score 20 points or more in their first game with the team since Kawhi Leonard. With some veteran support, O.G. Anunoby scored 20 points on 13 shots and was instrumental in limiting Edwards to 8 of 26 attempts while scoring 26 points, 10 of which came in the first quarter.
I gave him a little too much leeway. Anunoby, who is attempting to build on his all-defense lineup from the previous season, stated that he was "early." He is an excellent player, and I was allowing him too much room. He felt quite at ease. When in a comfortable situation, top players make shots. Just attempt to make things challenging for him. Simply use physical force on him and make him take difficult shots.
Although Pascal Siakam's 5-of-17 shooting percentage won't be highlighted, he did make two three-pointers in the last five minutes to help the Timberwolves stay in the game. Similar to this, Scottie Barnes contributed eight rebounds, five assists, five blocks, and two steals despite his unimpressive 6-of-16 shooting record.
For the majority of the game, Toronto labored terribly in the halfcourt as Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert made things difficult for them at the basket. Toronto shot just 40% from the field. Next on the list of things to accomplish is to fix their halfcourt offense.
"I felt we still needed to play faster," Rajakovic said. He appreciates his team's urgency in transition but feels that the halfcourt, where things seem to stall out too frequently, needs to go more quickly. By that, I mean that there were times when we were approaching half-court but failed to launch an offensive play promptly enough. It is something we will continue to work on. It's one of those situations where we can't just observe one another. We must possess the ability to cut, drive, breach defenses, and locate vulnerable individuals. There were times during the day when we performed admirably and times when we didn't.
Therefore, even though the Raptors managed to eke out a 53-51 halftime lead, their poor shooting performance in the first two quarters (18 of 50 from the field) was familiar. However, they managed the ball well enough (five turnovers) after having trouble with it during the preseason. Despite Nurse's departure, which brought in an aggressive, ball-hawking defensive style, Toronto was still able to cause plenty of problems for Minnesota, a popular sleeper favorite in the Western Conference, holding the visitors to 33% from the field.
Nurse's practice of using a relatively narrow eight-man rotation and depending more on his starters than any other coach in the league is another holdover from his time as head coach. Rajakovic has committed to playing with a 10-man rotation, citing his belief that he has a deep team as well as the need to keep his players fresh. Even if it's just one game, Rajakovic might be able to see Nurse's perspective a bit better. Midway through the third quarter, his starters extended Toronto's advantage to 10, but Minnesota's bench team came back to win the game with a 14-3 run. The fourth-year point guard Malachi Flynn, who was minus-11 in his five minutes during the third quarter and minus-14 in his ten minutes overall, saw the Timberwolves take a 74-73 lead into the fourth quarter. Flynn was unable to break through Nurse's rotation.
Beginner Gradey Dick made his NBA debut, although he only got two minutes of action. Chris Boucher, a mainstay for the previous two seasons, was absent from the starting lineup.
After Rajakovic found a strong closing lineup with Precious Achiuwa at center rather than Poeltl, the Raptors were eventually able to create just enough breathing room and Toronto made just enough shots.
Unknown as the first of many victories, it was unquestionably a great way to begin the season.