Ice cold water was dumped over Darko Rajakovic instead of champagne or sports drink to celebrate his first-ever win as a head coach in the NBA.
It may have been a fitting way to mark a new era for the Toronto Raptors.
Dennis Schroder had 22 points and seven assists as Toronto fended off the Minnesota Timberwolves 97-94 on Wednesday in both teams’ season opener. It was Schroder’s first regular-season game with the Raptors and Rajakovic’s first patrolling Toronto’s sideline.
“We got all the ice ready for him and put it over him and I think it’s a special moment for him,” said Schroder, adding that Rajakovic was screaming before the ice bath even touched him. “Great experience for all of us in the locker-room.
“We just want to keep getting better every single day and try to get as many wins as possible.”
Schroder became the first player to score over 20 points in his Raptors debut since Kawhi Leonard had 24 to kick off the 2018-19 season. Schroder signed a two-year, US$26 million contract with Toronto on July 12, effectively replacing beloved veteran Fred VanVleet as the Raptors starting point guard.
“No no no we’re not starting that,” chuckled Schroder at the comparison to Leonard, the centrepiece of Toronto’s title run in 2019. “I’m just glad to get a W. They won the championship in 2019, we’re just trying to get that winning culture back on our side
Toronto Raptors’ Dennis Schroder (17) drives as Minnesota Timberwolves’ Naz Reid (11) defends during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 25, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
“I think Darko’s been doing a great job since training camp, telling everybody to move the ball, ball movement, body movement, and I’m just glad we won the game.”
Toronto fired head coach Nick Nurse on April 21 after a disappointing 41-41 regular-season record and a 109-105 loss to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in tournament. VanVleet, the Raptors longtime leader on the court and in the locker-room, also left after signing a lucrative free-agent deal with the Houston Rockets on July 7.
All-star forward Pascal Siakam scored 15 on Wednesday, including six in the fourth quarter, as Toronto (1-0) ushered in Rajakovic’s new schemes, executed by Schroder.
O.G. Anunoby added 20 and had six rebounds for the Raptors, while Scottie Barnes scored 17 with eight rebounds, five assists and five blocks.
“I mean, every year is a new team,” said Anunoby. “But it’s definitely a new team. We’re all just excited for right now and as the season goes on just keep going on.”
Rajakovic was hired on June 13 and the differences between his and Nurse’s coaching philosophies were apparent by the end of Wednesday’s first quarter.
Nurse relied heavily on his starters last season with Siakam leading the NBA with 37.4 minutes per game and VanVleet’s 36.7 fifth. Rajakovic spread out the playing time with Toronto’s bench players subbing in midway through the first quarter.
“Scoring and defence and rebounding and assists,” said Rajakovic of what he expects from his reserves. “I have so much belief and trust in this roster and guys coming off the bench.
“We’ll need them every single night.”
That strategy paid off in the dying seconds of the quarter when Barnes fed backup centre Precious Achiuwa for an alley-oop dunk that tied the game 25-25. Achiuwa finished with eight of the Raptors’ 16 points from the bench.
Another obvious difference between Nurse’s coaching and Rajakovic’s was pace. Toronto had 34 fast-break points to Minnesota’s 12 on Wednesday, far outstripping the Raptors average of 17.7 fast-break points per game last season.
“I liked it, but I thought we still needed to play faster,” said Rajakovic, his hair still wet from the ice bath. “There were moments that we were coming past half-court, and then we did not get into offence early enough and quickly enough.
“That’s something that we are still going to work on. (…) we cannot just be watching each other.”
Anthony Edwards, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns each had a double-double for Minnesota (0-1). Edwards led with 26 points and 14 rebounds, Towns scored 19 with 10 boards, and Gobert had 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who is from Toronto, had two points but four rebounds and two assists for the Timberwolves.
DICK DEBUT — Toronto first-round draft pick Gradey Dick made his NBA debut with 9:05 left to play in the first half. At 19 years 339 days old, Dick became the fourth youngest Raptor to play in a regular-season game. Only Tracy McGrady (18 years 160 days), Bruno Caboclo (19 years 61 days) and Chris Bosh (19 years 219 days) were younger had younger debuts.
UP NEXT — The Raptors travel to Chicago on Friday in a rematch of last year’s play-in game when the Bulls halted Toronto’s chances of making it into the post-season.
Minnesota hosts the Miami Heat on Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.
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