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Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas puts up a shot over Indiana Pacers Roy Hibbert (L) during the first half of their NBA game in Toronto October 31, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas puts up a shot over Indiana Pacers Roy Hibbert (L) during the first half of their NBA game in Toronto October 31, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

nba

Valanciunas soars but Raptors will only be relevant in Toronto if they win Add to ...

It is foolish to suggest that because of Gary Bettman’s lockout, Toronto Maple Leafs fans are going to suddenly glom on to the Toronto Raptors, any more than the fact that Toronto Argonauts have managed to make the playoffs in the eight-team CFL – woohoo! – suggests Leafs fans will beat a path down to the Rogers Centre for a little three-down football.

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It is not going to happen. This is a Maple Leafs city, and will be a Maple Leafs city when the NHL comes back. The Raptors are in the same position as the Toronto Blue Jays – make it to the playoffs, and then we can talk about in-roads being made into the marketplace. It is an unfortunate fact of like, considering the Raptors are not an expansion franchise, but it’s how you measure success in this city unless you are the Maple Leafs.

Still, it’s a safe bet that nothing the Maple Leafs have run out on the ice in the past couple of seasons energized the Air Canada Centre the way little Kyle Lowry and condor-like rookie Jonas Valanciunas did in a 90-88 loss to the Indiana Pacers in their season opener, and maybe that’s enough to at least get people’s attention.

Say this for the seven-foot Lithuanian, who is on the verge of becoming a big deal in this city in more ways than one: when Roy Hibbert, Bill Spooner, David Guthrie and Mark Lindsay let him into their NBA world Wednesday night, he stepped in with both feet.

Now that Dwight Howard is in Los Angeles, you can make the case that the Pacers Hibbert is the standard against which all big men are measured in the Eastern Conference, and that plus an officiating crew (Spooner, Guthrie and Lindsay) that left everybody play amounted to a whole week’s worth of NBA growing compressed into one game.

That Valanciunas collected a double-double (10 boards, 12 points in 23 minutes 5 seconds) suggests he was up to the task. That he answered Hibbert’s tackle and an early turnaround hook-shot by grabbing Hibbert and knocking him off-balance less than two minutes later and putting in a pair of buckets from the paint – and that with three minutes left in the first quarter Hibbert had a plug of cotton in one of his nostrils to stem some bleeding – suggests he was more than up to the task. The last Raptors rookie to have a double-double in his debut was Damon Stoudamire in 1995 against the former New Jersey Nets.

Valanciunas, who plays the game with hustle and an openly expressive face that is just this side of endearing, came out of the game with 7:08 left after he picked up his fourth personal foul was horse-collared by the Pacers’ Sam Young under his own basket. He was in clear discomfort, and when he went back in, he was like the rest of his teammates overwhelmed by the Pacers.

Toronto will like this kid.

“I did double-double?” he asked, when told of his accomplishment. “Great, but it’s more important that our team wins or doesn’t win. It’s not enough, then.” He paused, then added, “maybe I should do triple-double?”

Good teams make runs, or more to the point know that they can make runs. That’s the Pacers. The Raptors, on the other hand, spent a great deal of time looking at each other. They had shots, but there was little in the way of organization. What there was, however, was energy, personality – point-guard Kyle Lowry looks like someone whose act wears thin with opponents, to which we can only say: thank goodness and welcome to Toronto – and a big man who is going to be something when he’s the finished product.

And the ovation given Dwane Casey when he was introduced in pre-game ceremonies suggests he is viewed as something of the anti-John Farrell in this market.

Like last night’s game, it’s a start.

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