Columnist image
Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

|Archive

What was old felt new again.

For the longer tenured Raptors players, for venerable media members and team and arena staff, being back at Scotiabank Arena was surreal.

Aesthetically, very little had changed. Everything was how we left it, more or less. Most of the hallways leading up to the Raptors’ locker room were still draped in Maple Leafs blue. In the media room, the ceiling tiles that needed to be replaced 20 months ago still need to be replaced. The sidelines were still a familiar shade of red. The rims were still 10 feet from the court surface and nearly 90 feet from each other.

But it had been a minute, 585 days worth of minutes, to be exact.

The Raptors hadn’t played a game in Toronto since hosting the Charlotte Hornets on February 28, 2020. A few things have happened since then.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBA to hit pause on the 2019-20 season, before resuming it in the Orlando bubble five months later. Provincial travel restrictions forced Canada’s only team to spent the entire 2020-21 campaign playing home games in Tampa. The club that was admirably defending its title back in the winter of 2020 has undergone a pretty significant facelift over the past year and a half, with Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Norman Powell and now franchise icon Kyle Lowry all outbound.

So, even in an otherwise meaningless game played inside a building that wasn’t even half full, Monday’s exhibition opener had more juice than you would normally expect from an exhibition opener. The Raptors had finally come home.

“It was great,” Fred VanVleet said after his team’s 123-107 preseason victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. “It was great to see our fans, make eye contact with people that you know have missed it just as much as we’ve missed it and see a lot of familiar faces.”

“It sure feels good to be back,” head coach Nick Nurse agreed. “There’s a buzz, a level of comfort. There’s an energy that translates from that crowd to the players. I think our guys were excited to play. We were certainly excited to get out there.”

It showed. From the moment energetic rookie Scottie Barnes led them out of the tunnel while skipping, shouting and flailing his arms, the team exuded joy. For a couple guys, VanVleet and OG Anunoby, it was a homecoming, a chance to do something they haven’t done in a while – play in the city they’ve called home since coming into the league. For Barnes and the rest of this young, new-look Raptors team, it was an introduction, and most of them made an excellent first impression.

Not only did Anunoby (21 points on 7-of-12 shooting in 25 minutes) and VanVleet (eight points and eight assists in 23 minutes) look comfortable in their expanded roles – Anunoby as a focal point in the offence and VanVleet as the primary ball handler, sans Lowry – but many of the new faces acclimated themselves well.

With four key players out of the lineup – Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch – Barnes got the start alongside VanVleet, Anunoby and the two guys that came over from Miami in the Lowry sign-and-trade, veteran guard Goran Dragic and sophomore big man Precious Achiuwa. He didn’t disappoint, stuffing the stat sheet with 13 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals in his NBA debut.

He and fellow rookie, second-rounder and Toronto-native Dalano Banton, led a hybrid unit that blew the game open in the second quarter. Barnes showcased his do-it-all, two way upside, making plays with the ball, getting his long arms in passing lanes, and racing out in transition. Like Barnes, Banton has a unique skill set for a player listed at 6-foot-9, and looked far more natural with the ball in his hands then he did in Summer League a couple months ago.

Unless something goes terribly wrong, the second unit should look a whole lot different come opening night on October 20. Still, that group – complete with Yuta Watanabe, Svi Mykhailiuk and Justin Champagnie, three guys competing for a spot in the rotation, or on the regular season roster – played the way Nurse wants this Raptors team to play.

All five guys on the floor were between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-9 in height. Their activity and versatility on defence created turnovers and opportunities to get out and run. Even with the obvious preseason caveats in mind – it’s still early in camp and neither team was close to full strength, with Philly resting Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris and missing holdout Ben Simmons – the Raptors clearly understand how they’ll have to win games this season.

“That’s what we want it to look like right there,” VanVleet said. “I don’t know if we can duplicate that 100 more times, but that’s the goal.”

“Now will it always work? Probably not, but it’s a good start.”

There’s going to be a learning curve, especially early in the year. Siakam is still working his way back from off-season shoulder surgery, and while he’s making progress in his rehab, he’s yet to be cleared for contact and is expected to miss the first month of the campaign. After dislocating his left middle finger in practice last week, and then undergoing a surgical procedure over the weekend, Boucher will be sidelined for the next three to four weeks, at minimum. Birch has been away from the team in camp due to the league’s health and safety protocols but the hope is he’ll be back for opening night. Trent, who’s dealing with some quad soreness, should also be available soon.

Not every game will go as smoothly as Monday’s. We’ll see some growing pains as they work in new faces, try to develop the young guys on the fly, and deal with early-season injuries.

Still, being back at home and nearly fully vaccinated as a team (they’re one second dose away), the Raptors feel they’re in a better position to overcome some of that built-in adversity than they were a year ago, when they were displaced in Tampa and had to follow strict health and safety protocols.

The league has loosened some of those restrictions for fully vaccinated players and staff, which should make a big difference for guys who had to alter their daily routines last season.

“What I appreciate the most? Freedom,” Dragic said pre-game, when asked about the difference in protocol from last season. “That's something that was really hard last year, especially with the testing and mask and just in general. We had to do it because of the pandemic, I understand that, but this year, hopefully it’s going to be a little bit different, but we still need to be cautious. It's still out there. We need to obey the rules and I'm just looking forward to just playing, to see fans in the stands again.”

As for arena protocols, there’s a learning curve there, as well. There are red zones and green zones, places you’re allowed to be and places that you’re not, masks and social distancing and all that. It’ll take some getting used to. For the foreseeable future, Scotiabank Arena will be able to host half capacity crowds of up to 10,000 or so, although there were roughly 8,000 fans in attendance on Monday. At some point this season, the team is hoping that number will increase, maybe to a full 20,000-plus if circumstances permit.

For now, they’re just happy to be home.

“All the familiarity seems more familiar after being away for so long, it really does,” Nurse said. “We tried to make the best of it down there in Tampa and thought we were okay, but now that we’re looking back, it sure seems like it was maybe a little harder than we thought it was down there.”

 

“It feels a heck of a lot better to be back, let’s put it that way.”​