TORONTO - There was a feeling of restrained joy in the Raptors locker room Wednesday evening.
Amir Johnson video-bombed a teammate during their post-game scrum, a semi-regular occurrence in Toronto's dressing room following a win. Rudy Gay showed off his best Johnson impression. Players cracked joked and debated where they were headed for a late bite to eat.
They were 1-0, undefeated after a gritty 93-87 opening night win over Boston. They were in good spirits, understandably, but they were not celebrating. Dwane Casey would never allow a celebration. They just barely stole the victory in their season opener and with each glance toward the white board, located on the front wall of the room, they were reminded that there's a long way to go.
"81 more!" was written with an exclamation mark in the centre of the board.
"One game at a time," Gay said, referring to the significance of that board. Not the first athlete to utter those words but given their increasingly difficult early-season schedule the cliche does apply.
"We have 81 more but we have to take it one game at a time," he continued. "We're just trying to get [off to] a good start and [build] a cushion because there's going to be times where you can't find a win but we want to prepare for that by getting these wins in the beginning."
This isn't the way they envisioned their first win of the young season but the rust they displayed was not a big surprise to Casey or his players.
"It was a grind," said DeMar DeRozan, who struggled in the victory scoring 13 points on 6-of-19 shooting. "We were rusty but we just went out there and tried to play hard, tried to scramble as much as we [could] and fight it out."
Four of Toronto's five starters played over 30 minutes (Johnson battled foul trouble and played 24), the first time they've logged that much playing time after resting in the fourth quarter of all seven preseason games. Accordingly, the team strung together some great moments - holding Boston to 11 second-quarter points - along with some stretches they'll likely hear about in practice Thursday, including a 34-point third quarter for the Celtics.
"[It was the] first game of the season, first real minutes we've played all season," said Gay, who scored seven of his team-high 19 points in the final minutes to help seal the win. "I think we did pretty good. We were a little rusty in the beginning, shook the rust off, they came back and we closed the game. It's all about W's in this league."
Grinding it out
Much of the discussion in camp focused on rising above adversity and grinding out close games, things the team didn't do especially well last season.
Toronto will face stiffer competition and tougher tests than the young Celtics but to Boston's credit they hung around - as they will do throughout the season despite their lacklustre offence - and fought their way back from a 16-point third-quarter deficit.
A Brandon Bass buzzer-beating dunk tied the game going into the fourth and the Celtics would take a three-point lead on a Jeff Green three pointer shortly after. Tied again at 78 with 7:41 remaining, the Raptors ripped off a 12-2 run led by Gay and Johnson, each of them scoring five during that stretch.
"A lot of times last year when a team [came] back or a team [made] that run we kind of let that get the best of us," DeRozan said. "We [understood] they were going to come out and make a strong run we just had to sustain that the best way we could, and we did."
Work in Progress
Although the gritty performance matched the identity Casey wants this group to uphold, the Raptors coach knows his team was lucky to come away with the win given their aforementioned early-season rust.
Boston scored 25 of their 87 points off 18 Toronto turnovers, the Raptors registered just 15 assists, made 12 of their 23 free-throw attempts and allowed the Celtics to shoot 49 per cent from the field.
"We have a lot of work [to do] defensively," Casey said. "That's not who we are, that's not we have to stand for. I thought we grinded it out when it got tough. They made their run and like I said at halftime, a team worth their salt in the NBA is going to make their run, and they did. I like the way our guys bounced back but we should never put ourselves in that hole."
Stagnant down the Stretch
Toronto's 15 assists are indicative of the team's lack of ball movement, especially late in the game when they relied heavily on isolation sets, settling for a series of difficult shots.
"Too many one-hand passes [and] too much one-on-one," Casey said of the team's late-game offence. "A good defensive team is going to shut that out. We've got to get that ball moving and we had been doing a good job but for whatever reason in the fourth quarter we got standing."
Gay and DeRozan were the primary culprits in that department.
"Shot selection was little tough today," Gay admitted. "They forced us into some tough shots but again, it's the first game. We'll get better at that."
Rough Night for the Guards
Both DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry had rough shooting nights in Wednesday's season debut, the backcourt duo combining to shoot 8-for-27 from the field.
DeRozan was suffocated by a trio of larger, veteran defenders - Green, Gerald Wallace and Courtney Lee - and was routinely double teamed in the post, where he had excelled in the exhibition season. Uncharacteristically, DeRozan only got to the line twice and missed both shots.
"They did a good job of sending people to him," Casey said of the coverage on DeRozan. "Anytime he drove in there he drew a crowd. What we've got to do now is find a draw and kick combination with him because he's got their respect now.
Lowry had 11 points and a promising eight assists but shot just 2-of-8 from the floor, 0-of-3 from three-point range and 7-of-12 at the line. The point guard was playing in his first game with the protective splint wrapped around his injured left ring finger, which he'll require for the first six weeks of the season. Although Lowry's injury is on his non-shooting hand, the splint is something he's having to get used to playing with.
The Raptors will play six of their next eight games on the road. First up, they'll travel to Atlanta and Milwaukee for a weekend back-to-back on Friday and Saturday respectively.