The Raptors came ever so close to giving the Warriors another early season loss.
Five hours north of overtime and extra-inning thrillers in L.A., another exciting game came down to the wire. The Toronto Raptors gave the defending champion Golden State Warriors a run for their money before eventually falling, 117-112.
These early-season clashes between two of the NBA’s best teams provide an interesting benchmark of where each team is, what’s different and what needs to improve. With that in mind, here are three points that stood out in Wednesday’s action.
Toronto’s second unit is going to be a problem for opponents
The famed “Lowry plus bench” lineups of years past are still going strong, this time with a slightly different supporting cast. Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph, two key cogs in those units, are gone. Norman Powell now starts. The revamped bench crew of Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and Jakob Poeltl wreaked havoc and nearly turned this game in Toronto’s favor.
Poeltl was particularly sharp, netting 12 points and grabbing 14 boards in 27 minutes off the bench. Miles kept the Raptors in it in the first half, though he was quiet in the second. Wright played the lion’s share of the backup guard minutes while Anunoby, who looks like a real player, was plus-eight in 18 minutes.
It was encouraging to see a young group show some fight against the defending champions. The Raptors’ depth is going to win them games in the regular season, and Dwane Casey will be able to configure some fascinating combinations within his rotation. What began as one of Toronto’s biggest question marks now looks like one of its major strengths, both now and for the future.
Jordan Bell and Patrick McCaw belong in the Warriors’ rotation
Nick Young and JaVale McGee, on the other hand, might not. Young got a DNP Wednesday night while McGee was inactive, both at Steve Kerr’s discretion. Neither Bell nor McCaw played major minutes against Toronto, but both were extremely active and productive during their time on the court.
Not only are Bell and McCaw major pieces of the Warriors’ future, they’re arguably more valuable right now than some of the vets ahead of them. Both players fit the Golden State archetype of rangy, versatile athletes who feel the game at a high level. McCaw looks more confident this season after mostly deferring to others as a rookie. He can handle the ball, finish plays and defend three positions on the perimeter. Kerr has even used him as a backup point guard at times.
Bell is probably the Warriors second- or third-best interior defender even though he’s only played in five NBA games. He’s a tremendous athlete with great instincts, and is particularly useful in the Warriors’ switch-everything defensive scheme. He and Draymond Green built a barricade around the paint in the first half. A smart off-ball player who benefits from playing next to so much talent, Bell has a knack for knowing where to be on offense as well. Once he picks out a gap in the defense, the rest of his job is easy.
It’s always fascinating to see who Kerr plays in place of Zaza Pachulia alongside his four All Stars. Usually, it’s Andre Iguodala, but Bell and McCaw have gotten some of those minutes too. Playing specific roles in talent-rich lineups makes it easier for the youngsters to get into a rhythm, and thus far, they’ve looked like they belong.
The Warriors may not be as invincible as we think
It’s too early for a “What’s Wrong With the Warriors?” take, but in the early going, this team has looked a bit out of sync. Before the season, I outlined a few reasons why the Warriors might be vulnerable, and some of those vulnerabilities were on display Wednesday night — namely turnovers and rebounding.
Toronto outrebounded Golden State 42-37 and claimed 35 percent of its own misses, resulting in a lopsided 94-77 advantage in field goal attempts. Despite shooting a markedly higher percentage than the Raptors, the Warriors surrendered enough shot attempts — in addition to 17 turnovers — for Toronto to mitigate that advantage.
The Warriors defense is not where it will be, nor is the offense as smooth or elegant as it could be. Close games and crunch-time situations are healthy challenges for great teams early in the season. Teams like the Warriors tend to figure it out by April, if not sooner.