The Raptors play their preseason home opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto was 2-0 against Minnesota last season, but many analysts, including Pro Bball Report’s projections, have the Timberwolves in the playoffs this season. This will be a good test of how well and how far the Raptors have implemented Head Coach Dwane Casey’s defense.
“With Pekovic inside and Love healthy, they are definitely one of the top teams in the West just because of the weapons they have,” said Casey after practice earlier today. “Martin is one of the best three-point shooters in the league, so they have a lot of weapons. Corey Brewer has made a niche for himself in the NBA. Even coming off the bench they have Dante Cunningham who didn’t play the other night. Derrick Williams is figuring it out and I like the team Flip has put together.
“(Ricky Rubio,) he really has grown. First year he had the typical rookie blues and struggles, but he has really grown. He has gotten stronger, most of all, he has gotten used to the NBA game and more confident. He has been playing ball since he was 12 I think. He is really a quality passer, quality scorer now. He gets you in transition attacking you, so he has really figured out the NBA game which is scary if you are an opposing team.
“Pekovic is one of the strongest players in the world – on the court – and he knows how to use it, how to play the game within the game and he is a handful. He is smart. He just knows how to play and he is a challenge for (Jonas Valanciunas).”
The Raptors played decent defense in stretches in Boston on Monday night, but they had a lot of careless turnovers on offense and were often caught trying to force things that just weren’t there. However, the team made up for many of their mistakes with effort and that aspect has to continue.
“We have been really focusing on defense and we will figure the offense out,” Casey said. “It will be something we keep harping about, taking care of the ball and not forcing it, not trying to make things happen that are not there.
“We always want to try to get around 13 or 14 (turnovers). I think we were number 5 in the NBA last year. We take pride in that, that is why the (26 turnovers) the other night was very alarming.”
The preseason is just practice for learning a team’s systems and getting the rust off, so the outcome and even the mistakes are not cause for serious concern at this point. Valanciunas fouled out in Boston and most of the fouls were caused by rookie-type mistakes that Valanciunas needs to get out of his system before the regular season starts. Playing against Pekovic tonight is just what the Raptors young center needs.
“This is a good lesson for (Valanciunas) to learn how to play against smart players like Pekovic,” Casey said. “J.V. is not a finished product. He has a lot to learn. He had a lot of rookie-type fouls the other night in Boston and he has to learn from that.”
The Raptors are serious about getting better this season and have their own (unspoken) playoff aspirations. Coach Casey believes winning teams play tough hard-nosed defense, so look for that to remain the focus of his team during the preseason.
“If you are serious about winning, you will figure (defense) out,” Casey said. “If you want to give lip service to the media and talk about winning, you will go out and just try to score a ton of points and out run everybody, but if you are serious about winning, you have to be serious about playing defense.”
Look for some different players in the Raptors lineup tonight. Quincy Acy, Carlos Morais, Steve Novak, Julyan Stone and Chris Wright didn’t get a chance to play on Monday and the Raptors have lot of decisions to make about who should be in the rotation and which player, if any, lands the 15th spot on the roster. If the Raptors players haven’t figured out what they need to do to get playing time this season, they really haven’t been paying attention. Look for increasing effort defensively as the preseason moves along.