The Toronto Raptors didn’t display the sort of suffocating defence they vowed to play this season, nor did they show dazzling improvement or mop the floor with the mediocre Boston Celtics, but they did take come alive late in the fourth quarter to grind out a 93-87 win.
Rudy Gay led the way with 19 points, while DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson each added 13, Kyle Lowry had 11 and Jonas Valanciunas eight, as the Raptors survived a late-game surge by a rebuilding Celtics team, and saved face in front of an excited home crowd.
Their so-so victory did little to erase the memories of missing the playoffs for the past five seasons or starting last season 4-18. But they showed fire in the dying moments. Their locker room whiteboard read “81 more” after the game, but to trump the NBA’s top teams, it’s going to take exponentially more than what Toronto mustered on opening night.
After trailing for much of the first half, the Raptors seized the lead with seven minutes left in the second quarter. They were up 49-37 at the half but couldn’t slam the door shut, allowing the Celtics to tie the game 71-71 as the third quarter ended and wrestle away the lead in the fourth before the Raptors regained control.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do defensively,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “That’s not who we are, that’s not what we stand for. But I thought we grinded it out.”
Toronto, projected by most to finish somewhere between sixth and tenth in the Eastern Conference, should have dominated Boston far more convincingly on Wednesday. The Celtics are without the injured star Rajon Rondo and are navigating a rebuilding season after losing superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and coach Doc Rivers.
While Toronto out-rebounded Boston 48-33, Celtics' Jeff Green troubled the Raptors much of the night, leading all scorers with 25 points, while Brandon Bass had 17 and Vitor Faverini added 13 for the green and white. The Raps had 17 turnovers, five each from DeRozan and Gay.
Johnson hit a key three that electrified the house with six minutes left in the game to give the Raptors back the lead, which they then defended to the finish.
“That was huge, it’s not what we drew up, but we’ll take it,” said Casey. “Amir is a guy who does so many thing -- his rebounds, his defensive intensity, things that are invisible to the naked eye. That’s just another example of him doing things to find a way to help us win.”
DeRozan, entering his fifth pro season and projected to have the year that makes him an NBA star, seemed to draw the focus of the Celtics' defence. He struggled to hit shots in the first half, going 1-for-8 from the field. The team’s biggest offensive talent had contributed just two points.
But DeRozan caught some fire in the third quarter, adjusting and creating open space to shoot. He finished 6-of-19.
“It was a grind. We played hard, but we were rusty,” said DeRozan. “They double-teamed me a lot, every time I posted up… “As a whole, we have to understand we what can do to help when I post up or Rudy posts up, how we can cut and try to open up lanes and take the focus off the post.”
Where the reserves were one of the key concerns entering the season, several provided a big jump on opening night.
Tyler Hansbrough was big on the boards (leading the Raptors with 12 rebounds), the former tough-bodied Indiana Pacers brought in via free agency, who several Raptors said adds major physicality and a mental edge to practices. Uber-athletic sophomore Terrence Ross looked as though he was shaking off the rookie inconsistency, and provided some key offence – including a big three -, played good defence and got his hands on some balls. Landry Fields added eight timely points and 19 much-needed minutes.
Gay hit tough shots late, showed glimmers of the effectiveness that comes with the more than 10 pounds of muscle he added in the off-season, along with the surgery he had to improve his vision – and finally – a full training camp with the team who acquired him last January. He was appointed for the first-game speech to fans, which he kept brief and businesslike, before the team was introduced with great pageantry, on a stage flanked by drummers and bedazzled with red lights, smoke and popping fireworks.
The opening month will be “a grind and a marathon” as Casey has reminded his players repeatedly, with contests against some of the NBA’s best, like the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets, and two against the reigning champs, the Miami Heat.
The Raptors leave Thursday for their first road trip of the regular season. They will take on the Atlanta Hawks Friday and Milwaukee Bucks Saturday, before returning home Tuesday to host the Heat.