The Toronto Raptors could not play at Scotiabank Arena, which always shakes with a crowd of 20,000 inside, and thousands more outside on a typical postseason opening day. So they drew motivation in other creative ways on Monday and barnstormed to a 134-110 Game 1 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
The Raptors opened their title defence inside the NBA’s Disney bubble by taking a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series. Familiar faces and a poignant moment of Canadiana appeared virtually, helping to set the mood.
Fred VanVleet led the Raptors with a career playoff-best 30 points and 11 assists, including a stellar 8-of-10 performance from three-point range.
Serge Ibaka added 22 points, while Pascal Siakam had 18, with 11 rebounds. Kyle Lowry contributed 16 points.
Both teams knelt for the anthems before the matinee contest. The second-seeded Raptors hold home-court advantage in the series, so the in-gym video components were Raptors-centric for Game 1, creating some emotional visuals for the players.
Toronto singers performed the anthems by video. O Canada was spine-tingling: singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez belted it out while kneeling on the lip of the EdgeWalk observation deck atop the CN Tower.
“It was awesome, it caught me by surprise,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “It took your breath away a little bit.”
Family members did Toronto’s pregame player introductions by video. The players laughed and beamed with boyish joy upon seeing their children and partners, while VanVleet’s two toddlers clapped and yelled for their father. Lowry’s sons, Kam and Karter, performed their father’s introduction just like the in-stadium announcer does it in Toronto, their little voices shouting, “From North Philly to your city.”
“I miss my babies even more now,” Lowry said. “I wanted to cry tears of joy, but it got me going.”
“It meant the world,” VanVleet said. “Family is the No. 1 thing in my life. I’ve been gone eight to nine weeks; it’s the longest I’ve gone without seeing my kids. I definitely got teary-eyed.”
Toronto’s defence was as smothering as advertised in the first half. They pressured the ball and collapsed in the post. They clamped down on Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert, who had averaged 25 points a game during his time in Orlando and made the NBA’s second-team “All-Bubble.” OG Anunoby and VanVleet shouldered much of that job, chasing and irritating the emerging Nets star.
Even with a big lead, Lowry repeatedly put his body on the line to draw charges from Nets big and small. He had three before half-time. The all-star point guard also orchestrated one of the craftiest highlights of the game when he bombed a long overhead pass to Siakam like a quarterback, pinpointing his receiver on a deep route.
The Raptors built a breezy 17-point lead in the first quarter and it swelled to 33 points in the second. They amassed 73 points in the opening half, a new franchise playoff record.
But it didn’t feel like such a lopsided affair in the third. LeVert, Garrett Temple, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot and Joe Harris got loose in transition, as the Raptors defence began to slip. At one point, Brooklyn made it an eight-point game.
But the Raptors put the hammer back down in the fourth and dominated once again. Anunoby and VanVleet hit a pair of threes each. Rookie Terence Davis made the most of his first playoff appearance, helping out with eight fourth-quarter points. Toronto’s defence tightened back up.
“We got back to guarding,” Nurse said.
While Nurse stuck mostly with a seven-man rotation in last year’s playoffs, he stretched that on Monday, giving meaningful minutes to 10 Raptors. In addition to his usuals, he called on Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Matt Thomas and Davis, and added an 11th – Chris Boucher – for a few fourth-quarter minutes once the game was in hand.
Luwawu-Cabarrot led Brooklyn with 26 points, Harris had 19, and LeVert and Allen each added 15.
Game 2 will be Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. eastern time.
“We’ve got to clean up on the defensive end a little bit,” VanVleet said. “We can’t duplicate 20,000 of the best fans in the world, so we’ve got to create our own energy.”