Last week, Jonas Valanciunas made his debut with the Toronto Raptors and acquitted himself quite nicely. This week it was Kyle Lowry's turn, and he was no less impressive in his preseason debut with the club, scoring 11 points and dishing six assists.
While Lowry was clearly playing out of rhythm after sitting out nearly two weeks with a strained groin, he demonstrated time and time again all of the little traits that are going to endear him both to his teammates and to the fans of the Raptors. He played his trademark aggressive defense, getting into the face of his opponents but also scrambling around the court, he used his quickness to penetrate to the basket for easy hoops and even got himself to the line six times (making all six free throws). He played a decidedly different brand of basketball than Jose Calderon, who also had a solid 12-and-8 outing, but the style contrast helped the Raptors overcome some hiccups in their offensive execution at various points in the game. In what looked at times like it was going to be a sloppy offensive night, the Raptors rebounded and wound up shooting 50% from the field, and a lot of that had to do with the strong play by Toronto's point guard tandem, who basically split the minutes evenly with each playing roughly 24 minutes last night.
One play of Lowry's that stood out, though, wasn't even a play that Lowry scored on. In the second quarter Lowry became the first player to catch Landry Fields on an off-ball cut for an easy dunk at the basket. One of Fields' greatest attributes is his ability as a cutter off of the ball and how he catches weakside defenses napping for easy baskets. Lowry proved to be the first guy who was aware enough of the action happening in the flow of the offense to hit Fields where he is most effective and it helped Fields get on track after three fairly nondescript games. That basket represented his first points in the game, and yet he ended up scoring a team-high 15 and looked far more comfortable operating within Dwane Casey's schemes after Lowry made that unassuming dime.
Outside of Lowry, Valanciunas had another standout game in the starting lineup, this time going for eight points and eight rebounds and recording three blocks in 25 minutes of action. He once again refused to be baited into picking up cheap fouls on fakes or by overplaying his man defensively. While he did wind up with four fouls on the night, two of those fouls were offensive (one illegal screen and one charge) and the two defensive fouls were just fouls, not gross mistakes by an overeager rookie. Once again, this bodes well for Valanciunas' ability to stay on the floor, although we still need to see it happen against a wider array of frontcourt talent.
It's also worth noting that Valanciunas is making a very solid case for starting at center for the club right out of the gates this year. While the assumption had long been held that he'd be too raw to justify that role, his play so far has been anything but. His defensive rotations have been strong, he's rebounded and blocked shots as expected and he hasn't looked terribly overwhelmed at the offensive end. Unless Casey simply does not want to hand him the roll or he stumbles mightily down the stretch in preseason he may very well be the opening night starter alongside Andrea Bargnani in his very first NBA game.
Outside of those story lines the game provided mostly more of the same. Ed Davis was once again a rebounding machine, gobbling up nine in just 25 minutes, DeMar DeRozan refused to settle for jumpers and kept attacking the rim on offense, and the club as a whole looked to run with varying levels of success (they managed just seven fastbreak points on the game). Bargnani again looked engaged defensively and indifferent offensively, Amir Johnson continued to rain long-twos over a defense that refused to guard him near the perimeter and John Lucas III saw his minutes slashed but nonetheless provided an injection of energy in the fourth quarter and helped the club seal a three-point win.
On Friday the Raptors get a much more compelling test in Montreal when they go against the New York Knicks, a Playoff team that simply has more talent to throw at Toronto than Detroit or Washington did. Expect to see Lowry's minutes ramped-up as the club looks to push him to catch up after missing so much time in training camp and keep an eye on Valanciunas' role - if he starts again then it would appear like Casey isn't even interested in testing out any other options with opening night right around the corner.
The team is starting to firm things up in anticipation of the games counting for real, so the preseason action from here on out is going to start looking more and more like real NBA basketball.