TORONTO — Bradley Beal scored 23 points, Montrezl Harrell had 22, and the Washington Wizards spoiled the Raptors’ long-awaited return to Toronto with a 98-83 victory on Wednesday.
Fred VanVleet and rookie Scottie Barnes had 12 points apiece to top Toronto. OG Anunoby had 11 points and 10 rebounds, while Goran Dragic and Montreal native Khem Birch each had nine points.
Anticipation had been sky high ahead of the Raptors’ first regular-season game at Scotiabank Arena in 600 days.
But the rebuilding Raptors, without veteran Kyle Lowry for the first time in a decade, struggled from the opening whistle. They trailed by 20 points in the first half. The gap grew to 29 in the third quarter.
A spirited comeback attempt, sparked by rookie and Toronto native Dalano Banton, finally gave fans a reason to cheer. Banton entered the game with 25 seconds left in the third in his NBA debut, and promptly knocked down a buzzer-beating three from 49 feet out to slice the Wizards’ lead to 81-59 with one quarter to play.
A dunk by Montreal native Birch punctuated an 11-4 Raptors run that pulled them to within 15 points, and brought the capacity crowd of 19,800 — including Drake and Olympic decathlon champion Damian Warner — to life.
Anunoby connected on a three-pointer with 4:28 to play that cut the difference to 13. A Barnes free throw made it a 10-point game, but that was as close as they’d come.
The Raptors, who are still without Pascal Siakam who’s recovering from shoulder surgery, were scattered on the offensive end through the first three quarters, tossing up off-target three-pointers — they were 4-for-25 from distance heading into the fourth quarter — and wasting fast break chances.
The take-away was these new-look Raptors have a long way to go. But on a good night, they could be fun to watch.
They shot a horrible 30.9 per cent on the night, 20.6 per cent from behind the arc. Washington, meanwhile, shot 45 per cent from the field.
Only four Raptors remain from the roster that played in Toronto on Feb. 28, 2020, a game against Charlotte that only history made memorable. COVID-19 shuttered the NBA less than two weeks later.
Last season, border restrictions and COVID-19 protocols forced the Raptors to call Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., home — but it was a poor substitute for the real thing. They were the only NBA team forced to play outside their market.
The Raptors were permitted 50 per cent capacity at Scotiabank for the pre-season, getting the green light from the Ontario government on Oct. 12 for a full crowd.
The emotional pre-game ceremony featured a spoken word poem “We Back,” by Hannah Flores. Rapper Kardinal Offishall performed “The Anthem,” his iconic ode to Toronto.
Banton, who grew up in the Toronto neighbourhood of Rexdale — he’s the first Canadian ever drafted by the Raptors — couldn’t contain his huge grin during player introductions.
VanVleet was met with a raucous ovation when he took the mic at centre court. He thanked the crowd for their support, saying “We’re all excited about this year, so let’s get it started the right way.”
Washington had other ideas.
The Raptors got off to a rough start, shooting 29.2 per cent in the first quarter to trail 26-18 heading into the second.
They were even shakier in the second quarter, and when Raul Neto scored on a running reverse layup with 3:47 left in the half, the Wizards went up by 20. Washington led 57-37 heading into the halftime break.
The Raptors are in Boston on Friday, then return home to host the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press