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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Masai Ujiri was more than happy to give up his seat in the middle of the 100 level at Scotiabank Arena.

With provincial COVID-19 restrictions in place for the last couple months, the Raptors’ president had been one of the team’s lone spectators for its games in Toronto recently. Half capacity gave way to an empty building, and eventually a couple hundred fans scattered around the stands.

A year after they were the lone NBA team to be displaced, forced to play their home games more than 2,000 kilometres away from home, they’ve been the only club that’s had to deal with attendance restrictions this season. With Omicron cases surging across Ontario, Ujiri was sensitive to the reason why they’ve been disadvantaged, from a basketball standpoint, but he’s anxiously awaited the day that they could do away with that awkward piped-in crowd noise for good. Yes, even if it meant he and his front office staff would have to go back to watching games from the video room.

That night came on Tuesday when, for the first time since December 13, the Raptors played in front of a packed house at home, and they welcomed back the roughly 18,900 fans in attendance – about 1,000 short of a sell out – with a gritty 109-108 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

“It felt good,” said Pascal Siakam, who finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists before fouling out late in the game. “It felt good seeing some familiar faces out there and I’m sure the fans were excited. We heard them. It feels good to have them back.”

The crowd certainly made up for lost time, making their presence felt from the jump. The catalyst, at least initially, was Goran Dragic – the former Raptor, who’s brief and bizarre tenure came to a merciful end when he was sent to San Antonio ahead of last month’s trade deadline.

The Spurs waived Dragic shortly after, freeing him up to sign with Brooklyn. This was his third game as a member of the Nets, and as fate would have it, two of them have come against Toronto.

In an era of good vibes, nostalgia and tribute videos, most ex-Raptors get a hero’s welcome when they make their return, but long-time fans of the franchise know that hasn’t always been the case. Gone are the days of Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Bosh and countless others rolling into town and getting run back out of it. But, as Dragic learned firsthand on Tuesday, Toronto fans love a good boo.

Dragic was booed loudly when he checked into the game late in the first quarter. He was booed each time he touched the ball for the duration of the evening. The Raptors faithful rejoiced when he missed two free throw attempts and then committed a couple fouls in his first two minutes. And while he ended up scoring 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting in 15 minutes, they let him hear it after each of those four missed shots.

“They were lively, that’s for sure,” Nick Nurse said afterwards. “They really had fun doing that, didn’t they? Man, they were ready. They didn’t take the foot off the gas the whole game.”

“I was surprised,” Siakam joked. “I like Goran, so I don’t know what’s going on.”

Whether he deserved it or not is a different question. His comments after being acquired in the Kyle Lowry sign and trade over the summer – that, to paraphrase, Toronto wasn’t his preferred destination – rubbed people the wrong way, understandably so. However, as Nurse alluded to before the game, the decision to pull him out of the rotation early in the season, which led to his personal leave in late November, was made by the Raptors.

Regardless of who’s to blame for how the Dragic situation played out in Toronto, this is a fan base that’s been cooped up at home watching games from the couch for more than two months. If some of that pent-up energy and enthusiasm manifests itself through booing, then so be it.

They had plenty to cheer about, too. Coming off a breakout performance in the first half of a home-and-home with the Nets in Brooklyn on Monday, Malachi Flynn provided the first highlight of the night. Getting his second straight start in place of the injured Fred VanVleet, Flynn put veteran big man LaMarcus Aldridge on skates with a hesitation dribble on the way to the rim.

At times, the flow of the game felt very much like it was early March, a week or so out of the all-star break. The Raptors’ effort was far less convincing than it was 24 hours earlier when they embarrassed the Nets, beating them by 36 points in their own building. But by the fourth quarter, with Toronto chipping away at a Brooklyn lead that grew to as large as 10, the fans were back into it.

They shouted, “ref you suck” when Siakam picked up his fifth foul early in the frame, and then again when he fouled out with less than three minutes remaining. The arena erupted in “let’s go Raptors” chants after Scottie Barnes hit a tough fade-away jumper late in the shot clock to put Toronto on top inside the final four minutes.

With less than two minutes to go, Barnes whipped a no-look pass to the recently acquired Thaddeus Young under the rim for an easy layup. Moments later, his vicious block and big defensive rebound, as well as clutch free throws from Gary Trent Jr. sealed the victory. And it was an important one.

Although each club was missing key players in both meetings – Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons for Brooklyn; VanVleet and OG Anunoby for Toronto – these were important games. After getting blown out on consecutive nights over the weekend, this was a chance for the Raptors to get back on track, and to pad their cushion on the Nets for the seventh seed in the East, which went from one game to three games in the span of 26 hours or so.

What a difference a few days make in terms of the narrative. The team held a lengthy meeting in the locker room following Saturday’s loss in Atlanta – the third time that they were defeated by at least 27 points in four games.

Since then, Flynn has emerged and impressed, Barnes has turned in two of his best games to date, Precious Achiuwa has continued to blossom in his role coming off the bench, and the trade for Young has started to pay dividends with Anunoby out of the lineup. The news on Anunoby is positive, too. The hand specialist he saw in Los Angeles on Monday believes it will take another two weeks for the small fracture in his right ring finger to fully heal. Although the team is still trying to determine whether he can, or should, return before that time and play through the injury, it’s encouraging to know that he doesn’t require surgery and likely won’t be out long-term.

“We didn't get out from the vacation break very focused, but snapped out of it and they were incredible last night,” Nurse said. “And I thought they were battling, they weren’t incredible tonight, but they found a way to keep hanging [around] and playing. So I think hopefully we’re back for a little while.”

And now, the Raptors have their home-court advantage back as well. Granted, they did have a 10-4 record at Scotiabank Arena while the attendance restrictions were in place. But with 11 home games left in the regular season, they feel like there’s another level that they can reach, and playing in front of their fans should help them get there.

“It’s hard not to notice [them],” Siakam said. “You could hear a pin drop when we played [here] before. So now you can hear [the crowd], you can feel it.”

“It was amazing,” said Trent. “We missed their energy all year, for the time they had to be out of the building. But they're all back now, so hopefully we can get things rolling, get the crowd behind us, the city behind us and get a great thing going.”