Rise and shine
Raptors rally from big deficit to stun Harden and Rockets in Japanese pre-season opener
TOKYO — Toronto Raptors supporters travel as well as just about any fanbase in the NBA.
Anywhere you go across North America if Toronto is the road team, there will be Raptors backers — and often a lot of them.
So it wasn’t too surprising then to see so many people wearing red and gold Raptors championship gear at Saitama Arena on the other side of the globe on Tuesday night for the pre-season opener between the NBA’S defending champions and the new-look Houston Rockets, which Toronto won 134-129.
As the Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit in the second half of the first NBA game in Japan in 16 years, a number of the Raptors faithful loudly made their presence known, leading to postgame smiles from those within the organization.
“We get ‘Let’s Go Raptors’ in a lot of cities, and it was nice to see it in Tokyo as well,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “A lot of Raptors fans around the world. It’s great.”
What wasn’t so great, which is to be expected, was the play of both teams. Though it definitely didn’t lack for entertainment (Toronto shot 51% from the field, Houston 48%), there was clearly some rust on both sides. The Raptors have been off since beating Golden State four months ago, while superstar Russell Westbrook suited up as a Rocket for the first time.
“It was OK, I mean early season you expect the ball to fly around a little bit,” Nurse said. “A few too many turnovers for both teams, but there was a lot of offence out here, it was a pretty entertaining game.”
Nurse said Pascal Siakam, who many have projected to make an all-star leap this season, was in “mid-season form” and indeed the big man had 24 points and 11 rebounds, made all eight of his free throws and flashed some extended range. He paired nicely with Serge Ibaka, who Nurse also lauded for his 8-for-10 shooting performance (Ibaka has reportedly been red-hot in scrimmages too. Fellow centre Marc Gasol was rested on this night).
Westbrook had 13 points and six assists, but was a bit erratic and couldn’t get his three-pointers to drop. Harden was brilliant, easily the best player on the floor with 21 points in the first quarter alone. Harden dazzled and finished with 34 in 27 minutes, including a number of highlight-reel plays that thrilled the fans.
Houston will be an interesting experiment, but Westbrook didn’t seem hampered by off-season surgery.
“For someone who hasn’t played all summer, has only practised about five times, I thought it was very good,” Rockets head coach Mike D’antoni said.
“Saw his athleticism, what he and James can both do together. A lot of good stuff, we just have to get better.”
For Siakam and Fred Vanvleet, it was great just to be back on the floor.
“We’ve been working hard all summer and training camp so been beating up on each other pretty good especially the last week,” Vanvleet said.
“It just felt good to get back out there, getting back to it after a great finish to the year last year. Obviously, starting a new journey.
“It’s a new team new year new season. Obviously what we did last year was unbelievable that’s something that we’ll remember for a long time but you don’t retire every time you win a championship you’ve got to go back out there and try to do it all over again,” Vanvleet said.
“There’s new goals and expectations. You just try to build for a long year.”
Vanvleet had 16 points while starting in place of Kyle Lowry, who was also rested as he works his way back from thumb surgery, and Canadian Chris Boucher was strong off of the bench with 12 points and seven rebounds in perhaps his best NBA outing yet.
The teams will meet again on Thursday, then the Raptors will fly home and host Chicago on Sunday.
They’ll finish the pre-season in Brooklyn before opening at home against the New Orleans Pelicans and star rookie Zion Williamson as the championship banner gets raised.
raptors’ pascal siakam looked in mid-season form against the rockets, racking up 24 points in Toronto’s win in saitama, Japan.