Rise and shine

Rap­tors rally from big deficit to stun Har­den and Rock­ets in Ja­panese pre-season opener

Edmonton Sun - - SPORTS - Ryan WOLSTAT rwol­[email protected]­media.com @wol­stat­sun

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.

GETTY Images

rap­tors’ pas­cal si­akam looked in mid-season form against the rock­ets, rack­ing up 24 points in Toronto’s win in saitama, Ja­pan.

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