TAMPA, Fla. — It was a Toronto Raptors’ home opener unlike any other, played a couple thousand kilometres from home, in front of a tiny bipartisan crowd, on a day that saw the league postpone a game – on just Day 2 of the season – due to COVID-19.
Also unusual for the Raptors: a loss.
Brandon Ingram scored 24 points and JJ Redick added 23 and the New Orleans Pelicans shot the lights out in the third quarter en route to a 113-99 win, handing Toronto its first loss on opening night in eight years.
“(The third quarter) … zapped our energy pretty big time,” coach Nick Nurse said. “We did seem to lose a little energy and maybe ran out of a little gas, too.”
Pascal Siakam had 20 points in one of Toronto’s bright spots. Kyle Lowry added 18 points and 10 assists, Aron Baynes had 11 points and nine rebounds, and Norman Powell and Chris Boucher chipped in with 12 points apiece.
The Raptors led for most of the first half but went ice cold in the third quarter. While the Pelicans knocked down seven threes in the frame, the Raptors went 0-for-10 and were outscored by 16 points.
Leading 88-79 to start the fourth, the Pelicans kept their foot on the gas. When Redick knocked down a three-pointer with 5:15 to play, New Orleans led by 14 points.
Siakam was solid in the loss, which is good news for the Raptors after his disappointing performance in the Walt Disney World bubble last summer.
He’d been enjoying a career year before the NBA shut down due to COVID-19 and was never quite himself when the league resumed. Fans weren’t kind to the 26-year-old when the Raptors were eliminated by Boston in the second round of the playoffs.
He not only scored on an array of shots Wednesday, but pitched some excellent passes out of crowds, finishing with six assists, six rebounds, and three three-pointers.
“I’m getting back to just running and attacking, making plays and stuff, so I felt good about it,” Siakam said. “Obviously, we didn’t get the win and we didn’t play like we wanted to and (the Pelicans had) a good stint out there where they made a lot of shots and we weren’t able to stop them, but I think for the most part I like what I brought.”
The night marked the beginning of the most bizarre season in Raptors history. A limited crowd of 3,800 fans – who seemed to be cheering for both teams – dotted Amalie Arena, Toronto’s temporary home for at least the first half of the season due to Canada’s travel restrictions around COVID-19.
“I don’t know if it’s all Raptors fans or what the case might be, but I thought it was cool, just having people around it,” Siakam said. “Obviously we’re blessed that we have some people, some type of energy in the crowd to make the atmosphere a little better.”
In a sign of these strange times, the Raptor mascot waved the team flag before the game clad in a black protective face mask.
The Raptors tipped off a few hours after the league announced Houston’s game against Oklahoma City was postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests. James Harden’s violation of the league’s coronavirus protocols left the Rockets without the league-mandated eight available players.
It was a discouraging blow on Day 2 of a season that feels like the league is playing with its collective fingers crossed while the pandemic continues to rage in the U.S.
The Raptors had their own COVID-19 scare this week. Powell had missed a couple of days of practice, and was listed as questionable after some inconclusive tests with someone close to him.
“It’s tough, you know?” Powell said. “But that’s pretty much what you have to do. I did everything right in terms of following the protocol, making sure that I was good, I was safe, people around me were safe. But still, you can get caught up in inconclusive tests and whatnot.
“It was kind of frustrating, you know, to sit out the important days leading up to the game.”
Nurse said despite the rocky start, he’s “fairly comfortable” about playing.
“I understand that there are some people – players and staff, et cetera – testing positive,” he said. “I’d be much more concerned if there was a number of players going to the hospital, a number of staff going to the hospital, and I just don’t see that as the case with all these colleges and universities and all the athletes that test.”
Amalie Arena is one of just a few facilities around the league that is permitting a limited number of fans this season.
The Raptors trailed in the early minutes, but Siakam’s three capped a mini 7-0 run that put Toronto up by four. The Raptors led 26-23 to start the second quarter.
Siakam knocked down back-to-back three-pointers – both off passes from sharp-shooter Matt Thomas – to put the Raptors up by 11 with 1:46 left in the first half. Toronto took a 57-50 advantage into the halftime break.
The Raptors now depart on their first road trip of the regular season, playing against former teammate DeMar DeRozan and the Spurs in San Antonio on Boxing Day. They play at Philadelphia on Dec. 28.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2020.
The Canadian Press