EDMONTON — The Toronto Raptors opened their exhibition season on Sunday by being simply dominant in their Canadian home away from home.
Pre-season or not, holding an NBA team — even one that is in rebuilding mode like the Utah Jazz — to just 33 second-half points is remarkable. And that's what the Raptors did in a 114-82 blowout win at Rogers Place.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse said a lot of what he called the “middle roster” player who saw the majority of the minutes in the game did some very good things to disrupt the Jazz.
“A lot of deflections, a lot of challenges at the rim, changing shots, good rebounding, perimeter-shot contests were pretty good,” he said. “I think I got to see a ton of the middle of the roster, which was good. It was helpful.”
Leading by only one entering the second half, the Toronto Raptors began the third quarter by going on a 17-3 run in the pre-season opener for both teams.
The Jazz, a team that is in a rebuilding process after stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell were traded away during the off-season, looked very much like a club starting from scratch, shooting 32.6 per cent from the floor on the night and committing 23 turnovers.
“We’ve done a lot through our first four practices to come together as a team,” said Jazz coach Will Hardy, who said it was important to see how this new version of the Jazz did in a “competitive environment,” even it was just the first game of the pre-season.
“We’re looking for everybody to communicate and problem-solve as a group. The young players, to earn a spot in the rotation, they’re going to have to do the dirty work, they’re going to have to step up to an NBA level of physicality.”
A capacity crowd at Rogers Place watched the pre-season curtain raiser. Tickets sold out for the NBA Canada Series game just minutes after they went on sale, and lower bowl tickets were going for more than $700 each on secondary sales sites.
“The crowd is into it, it's the one chance they get to see us in their hometown or home area,” said Nurse. “And, they usually bring it. It's cool because, listen, there's a lot of pre-season games that you go through that there is zero energy and almost leaning toward negative energy. We don't have to go through that, and it's fun.”
Guard Fred Van Vleet said that the Raptors received “rock-star treatment” since they touched down in Edmonton on Saturday. “Hopefully we put on a good show,” he said. Van Vleet, expected to be one of the stars of the team again this season, played just 9:39 in Edmonton, scoring three points.
“It was a good practice, guys were flying around,” said Van Vleet, as dozens of fans pressed up against the glass of the Hall of Fame room chanting his name as he tried to speak to the media.
“I’m not even going to try and grade it by any stretch. There were a lot of breakdowns, a lot of mistakes, that’s to be expected. But I thought we played with great energy.”
The Raptors were led by 11 points and 10 rebounds from Chris Boucher, one of five Canadian players to see the floor in the game. Kelly Olynyk (no points, six rebounds) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (no points, five rebounds) got onto the floor for the Jazz, while Dalano Banton (nine points), and Khem Birch (five points, five rebounds) also saw time for the Raptors.
Of the 18 players on the Raptors game roster, only Thaddeus Young did not score.
“It just shows the support we have, playing in Canada, the fans supporting us wherever we play,” said Boucher. "It definitely made the environment better, but it’s still a pre-season game. There is still stuff we have to fix. But the fans definitely helped to make it feel like it was a real game.”
The Jazz debuted a new-look starting lineup with the twin towers of seven-footer Lauri Markkanen and Olynyk, one inch shy of seven feet, in the front court. Markkanen finished as the Jazz's top scorer with 20 points.
Raptors' seven-foot rookie Christian Koloko made the most of his time on the floor, bringing the crowd to their feet with a highlight-reel second quarter put-back dunk, and later using his massive wingspan to stuff a dunk attempt. Koloko finished with seven points and three rebounds.
Edmonton native Matthew Kallio was one of the officials on the floor for the game. He was a non-staff referee for the NBA and also officiated at the Tokyo Olympics, but found out in August he's going to become a staff official for the league. He's relocated to Calgary, but being part of this game in his hometown was special.
“There's a lot of honour and pride,” he said. “It's been a long journey, a lot of work to get here. But, at the same time, it's a basketball game. I love this game. But I will cherish the moment after the game, after the work is done.”
The first game Kallio ever officiated was at Edmonton's Rosslyn School. Kallio was a junior-high student, and was asked to ref a junior game because no other ref was available.
“I decided to throw a whistle around my neck and hop on the floor because my (physical education) teacher asked me to.”
And, does the attention the Raptors get in the rest of country suggest that, even though the Vancouver Grizzlies came and went, is it time for another team in Canada?
“Expansion is not an easy topic,” said Nurse, “But from the little I do know, the growth of the game has been pretty rapid here, recently. And that would help any city with a beautiful arena like this one.
"I think the overall growth of the game across the country would certainly make a team very viable.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2022.