After receiving their enormous championship rings, the Toronto Raptors outlasted the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA's season opener on Tuesday, winning 130-122 in overtime. Fred VanVleet, who recently did an interview with this website, finished with 34 points, seven assists and five rebounds, shooting 12-for-18 and making five of his seven 3-point attempts. Pascal Siakam, who recently signed a four-year, $130 million extension, also had 34 points, plus 18 rebounds and five assists, shooting 11-for-26 before fouling out near the end of regulation.
1. VanVleet and Siakam are ready for more, especially with this rotation
The contrast between the two teams' rotations was jarring. The Pelicans, despite being without Zion Williamson, used 12 players, and all of them got at least 12 minutes. (Poor Jaxson Hayes.) Starting center Derrick Favors hardly played in the second half, and coach Alvin Gentry turned to an all-bench lineup in the first and third quarters. The Raptors, meanwhile, went only eight deep. Kyle Lowry played 45 minutes and VanVleet played 44. The bottom half of this roster is almost entirely new, but undrafted rookie Terence Davis was the only offseason addition who got on the court.
Toronto has 81 games left on the schedule, so there is plenty of time for the likes of Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (who was inactive with a groin injury), Chris Boucher, Malcolm Miller and Matt Thomas to earn opportunities. Patrick McCaw likely would have played if not for his knee injury. If Nick Nurse is comfortable using an eight-man rotation in the regular season, though, then maybe Siakam and VanVleet have an even bigger opportunity in front of them than previously thought -- in the games Kawhi Leonard sat last season, the Raptors still typically went with a 10-man rotation. They will not always play at such a fast pace, go into overtime or need to ride their guards the way they did against New Orleans, but it feels relevant that Siakam and VanVleet started the season like this.
2. Lowry, in big moments
Lowry didn't have the prettiest game (22 points on 4-for-15 shooting, 3-for-11 from deep, 11-for-13 from the line, six assists, five rebounds), but, as usual, he was crucial on both ends late in the fourth quarter and might have been the biggest reason Toronto persevered in OT as Siakam watched from the sideline. New Orleans' offense fell apart in crunch time, and while O.G. Anunoby will get most of the credit for this defensive possession, look at Lowry chasing JJ Redick around:
Some of Lowry's other late-game "highlights" involved him frustrating Pelicans defenders by drawing fouls on jumpers and cleverly getting to the line in transition. I won't embed those here, but you know you can picture him doing his sneaky Lowry stuff.
3. Fred's fancy finishes
VanVleet made seven layups. Most were contested, and two were and-1s. Look at this 6-foot dude attacking the rim over and over again:
A couple of those were lucky bounces, but that's not the point. VanVleet is an expert when it comes to misdirection, protecting the ball, initiating contact and taking the exact angle he needs to take in order to get his shot off. Little guys like him are often described as "fearless" -- this is accurate, but it would be worth next to nothing if he were reckless. VanVleet is not being wild on any of these forays to the paint; he knows exactly what he is doing.