The last time the Toronto Raptors took the floor for a game at Scotiabank Arena, the team was still basking in the glow that accompanied its victory in the 2019 NBA Finals.
Though the championship banner is still there, hanging proudly from the rafters, no one could have predicted when they walked off the court following a 99-96 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Feb. 28, 2020, last year that they were about to embark on the longest road trip in NBA history.
Exactly 600 days later, and with trips to the Disney Bubble and an entire year played out south of the border behind them, the Raptors returned home Wednesday to open their 2021-22 season with a 98-83 loss against the Washington Wizards.
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse put the manner of defeat – which was lopsided for much of the game before a late fourth-quarter Raptors rally – down to his players’ experience level, or lack thereof.
“We didn’t handle the moment very well… You’re playing against some experienced guys who know how to play,” he said. “[We got] a bunch of new guys wondering where the heck they are out there and running around and stuff. But we’ll make some strides and play better, I’m sure.”
The usual “We The North” slogan was relegated to something of a supporting role, for one night anyway, to an even more simplistic “We Back” mantra that was emblazoned on complimentary T-shirts that were hung on the back of every seat.
Tickets were available shortly before tipoff throughout the arena, with prices on Ticketmaster’s website ranging from $80 all the way up to $806 a seat, though the game was ultimately announced as a sellout of 19,800.
Only four players who took part in last year’s game against Charlotte were still on Toronto’s roster entering this season, and one of those – Pascal Siakam – missed Wednesday’s game following off-season shoulder surgery.
Though his absence was felt, one of the biggest voids in franchise history was to be found at point guard, a realization that only truly hit home when it fell to Fred VanVleet to take the mic and address the crowd before tipoff, rather than his predecessor as the team’s de facto leader.
So with Kyle Lowry busy preparing to begin his Miami Heat career on Thursday night, it fell to VanVleet to thank Raptors fans across the country for their support over the past 19 months and implore the team to get things “started off the right way.”
Moments later, VanVleet did precisely that, leading by example and scoring the first points of the Raptors’ post-Lowry era with a three-point shot just 14 seconds in.
The team got more production out of the guard position, too, with Goran Dragic scoring his first basket in a Toronto uniform seconds later. A former teammate of Steve Nash in Phoenix, the Slovenian was part of the return from Miami the Lowry trade, along with Precious Achiuwa.
Dragic finished with nine points and four assists, and he already seems to have greater familiarity with the Raptors offence than local landmarks, with “the tower” serving as his reply on a video when asked the name of well-known tourist attraction that protrudes into the sky.
Regardless, that early five-point edge proved to be something of a false dawn on this night, as it was the only lead the Raptors would enjoy all game.
Bradley Beal had 23 points, Montrezl Harrell added 22 more for the Wizards, which jumped out to a 20-point lead at halftime and survived a fourth-quarter Raptors flurry to grab its first win in Toronto since 2017.
Rather than dwelling on costly mistakes afterward, Nurse chose to look forward.
“A lot of learning will be going on tomorrow, that’s for sure,” he said of Thursday’s practice.
Despite the loss, there were seeds of hope for the home side, however.
With 4:30 left in the first quarter, rookie Scottie Barnes registered his first NBA points with a well-executed hook shot. The forward, drafted out of Florida State with the fourth overall pick last summer, was inserted into the starting lineup in Siakam’s absence, but over the course of the first half he found greater familiarity with personal fouls (three) than the opposition basket (two field goals).
Things improved for Barnes in the second half, however, with Barnes tying VanVleet for the team scoring lead with 12 points, to go along with eight rebounds and five personal fouls.
“I was pretty happy with Scottie for a first appearance,” head coach Nick Nurse said afterwards.
Fellow rookie Dalano Banton received one of the loudest cheers of the night when he was inserted into the lineup with seconds remaining in the third quarter to make his NBA debut. That cheer was quickly and easily eclipsed seconds later when the Toronto native – the first Canadian drafted by the Raptors – hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer from halfcourt for his first NBA basket.
Banton admitted afterwards he couldn’t have envisioned a better shot to start NBA career.
“I couldn’t but I’m grateful it went in,” he said, ultimately finishing with seven points and four rebounds. “That’s my first bucket and it’s in the books.”
Not that Nurse was exactly expecting fireworks from two of the youngest players on his roster.
Given the hoopla surrounding the team’s return to Toronto, to Canada, and to playing meaningful games following a 27-45 season in which the Raptors missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season, Nurse said in pre-game media availability that it can be a lot for young players to take on board.
“What I think is there’s a lot going on here today,” he said. “Certainly a lot different than pretty much all of our team has experienced except four guys.”
The 2020 NBA coach of the year mentioned the need to instruct players on the most basic of fundamentals, such as where to stand, and the importance of running in both directions.
“I think there’s only so much room for all of us up there,” he said, motioning to his forehead.
With Wednesday’s loss dropping the Raptors to 16-11 in season openers, Nurse will likely have last year’s start on his mind, when Toronto began the season on a 1-6 run that put it behind the 8-ball in its quest to make the playoffs.
Next up for the Raptors is a trip to Boston to face the Celtics on Friday, before returning home for a four-game home stand.