It was opening night of the National Basketball Association regular season for the Toronto Raptors and DeMar DeRozan had more reason to celebrate than the rest of his teammates.
As the Raptors were preparing to showcase their new-look lineup against the Indiana Pacers at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, word began to filter out that the 23-year-old swingman had agreed to a four-year, $38-million [U.S.] contract extension with the Canadian club.
Coming as it did mere hours before the midnight deadline, the new contract lifted a large weight off the shoulders of DeRozan, whom the Raptors obviously figure to be a key component in their plans to build the team into a perennial playoff contender.
“It’s a nice thing, I’m here,” DeRozan said of his new pact. “This is the place I want to be. Now I can just concentrate on doing everything for this team.”
Unfortunately for DeRozan the Pacers were able to put a damper on his moment, clawing their way back to record a 90-88 victory over Toronto on a teardrop one-handed jumper in the paint off the hand of George Hill with just 2.1 seconds left in the game.
It was a terrific opener nonetheless and one the Raptors probably should have won before an excited sellout gathering of 19,800 considering Toronto was leading by as many as 10 points, 84-74, with just under six minutes left after Jose Calderon knocked down a three-point shot.
Kyle Lowry, one of general manager Bryan Colangelo’s key off-season acquisitions in a trade from the Houston Rockets, played as advertised, displaying plenty of derring-do at both ends of the court.
Lowry would lead the Toronto attack with 21 points, eight assists and five steals but it would not be enough.
It was Lowry who cut through a huge gap through the guts of the Indiana defence for an easy layup with 4:31 left to go that gave Toronto an 86-78 lead, but the Pacers defence chocked off the Toronto attack after that.
David West would lead the Pacers with a game-high 25 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter, that keyed the big Indiana comeback.
“David put us on his shoulders tonight in the fourth quarter, on both ends of the court, and carried us,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “This victory is squarely on his shoulders.”
A game against the Pacers was not exactly anybody’s idea of easing your way into the start of the regular season.
Even without forward Danny Granger, their leading scorer from a year ago who is out indefinitely with knee problems, this is one of the better outfits the NBA can offer.
“I’m proud or our team,” Toronto coach Duane Casey said. “I thought we showed more grit and spunk than we did all last year.”
Vogel is certainly upbeat about his team’s chances this season.
“We’re still a beast of a team,” Vogel proclaimed before the contest. “We’ve got all-stars at a bunch of different positions.”
It was opening night with all the trappings for a Raptors team that hopes to capitalize in a sports-starved market with hockey on hiatus thanks to the NHL labour dispute.
As the fans banged glow sticks together in the stands of the darkened arena, the Raptors were introduced individually as a gospel choir sang them in from courtside.
With Lowry and three-point threat Landry Fields on the wing joining vaunted rookie Jonas Valanciunas as the three newcomers to the starting lineup, hopes are high for a Toronto team that hasn’t made the playoffs the last four years.
DeRozan started in the back court but was ineffective in the opening quarter, missing on all five of his shots as the Pacers took a 27-25 lead..
Bargnani, the Toronto power forward who was shaking off the effects of flu-like symptoms that prevented him from practising on Monday and Tuesday, helped pick up the slack, scoring 11 of his 16 points in the opening frame.
DeRozan finally got it revved up a bit in the second quarter when he slammed home a one-handed alley-oop dunk off a nice lead feed from Fields that cut the Indiana lead to 42-41.
DeRozan followed that up with a 14-foot jumper and an Aaron Gray turnaround hook shot with less than 30 seconds left enabled the Raptors to head into the locker room at half-time with the score tied 48-48.
DeRozan would finish with 10 points.