Toronto, ON- After much anticipation, and a long off-season, the Toronto Raptors returned with a bang.
In front of a loud, sold out crowd at the Air Canada Centre, and a throng of supporters watching the game outside in the cold, the Raptors defeated the Atlanta Hawks 109-102 in their home opener Wednesday night.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, the game looked to be a blowout with the Raptors leading by as much as 17 points with 4:46 remaining. That’s when the Hawks made things interesting, going on a 15-2 run, cutting the lead to four points. But that’s as close as they would get. The Hawks run made for a dramatic end and the score line galvanized an already lively crowd into deafening “Lets Go Raptors” chants in the final few moments.
Despite a poor shooting performance (41% FG), it was a balanced scoring effort that led the Raptors to victory. Seven players scored in double digits, with three-Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan and Amir Johnson- picking up double-doubles.
Credit had to go to the Raptors’ bigs. Amir Johnson was the player of the game, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Many of his points came off put-backs from missed Lowry and Derozan shots in the first half. Casey said Amir was the key to starting the game well, “We needed that to start the game,” Casey said. “We needed his interior energy, and his contribution on the boards.”
Starting centre Jonas Valanciunas was strong at times, causing defenders headaches with his new repertoire of post-moves. His final line looks great: 17 points, eight rebounds, aided by 4-5 shooting from the field and 9-10 from the free-throw. Believe it or not, Valanciunas could have had a much more dominating performance had it not been for some early foul trouble and an inability to finish lay-ups on what could have been three point plays.
When Atlanta made their run at the end of the fourth quarter, like most of last year, coach Casey decided to leave Valanciunas on the bench. After the game, Casey explained that move, “I thought we needed more speed and quickness. I liked Amir and Patterson with their speed and athleticism. They (Atlanta) scored some quick threes, and we had to match up,“ Casey said.
It wasn’t a particularly strong game for the Raptors esteemed backcourt. Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan combined for 7-27 shooting, but both managed double-doubles, finding ways to contribute in other ways. Lowry finished with 11 points and 10 assists, while Derozan had 15 points, finishing with career highs in steals (six) and rebounds (11). After the game, Lowry said this is a team that is capable of winning when he and Derozan do not score. “We’re a complete team,” he said. “Greivis played well, the big fella (Valanciunas) and Amir played well and everyone filled a role.”
Like Lowry said, the bench played its part Wednesday night. Greivis Vasquez provided a scoring touch when the Raptors were struggling in the second quarter. Vasquez finished the night with 12 points. Patrick Patterson played major minutes including the final moments of the game. Patterson picked up 10 points and five rebounds.
Even Lou Williams made a contribution off the bench against his former team. The home opener marked Williams’ Raptors debut. He added eight points in just over 15 minutes. Despite only playing one game for the Raptors to date, the crowd seemed taken with the newly acquired player. Chants of “Looouuu” could be heard emanating from the crowd every time Williams touched the ball.
The Hawks were outplayed for most of the game, only outscoring the Raptors in the fourth quarter. Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Mike Scott finished with 20 points apiece, with Korver putting on his usual show from behind the three-point line. Korver finished 7-10 from the field, and 6-7 from behind the arc.
The sellout crowd of 19,800 at the ACC was a loud bunch on Wednesday night. They cheered on Kyle Lowry as he made his opening remarks before the game. Lowry tried to thank the fans for their support, but had to stop several times, smiling and shrugging when the fans cheered over him. In his post game, Lowry reflected on that moment, “that was unbelievable, I really appreciate the fans we have, and their reaction really summed it up.”
Both Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas said Wednesday’s win felt like last year’s playoff series, thanks to the atmosphere in and outside of the Air Canada Centre. Jurassic Park also made its return, with hundreds of fans cramming into the square to watch the Raptors beat the Hawks on the big screen.
Wednesday night’s home opener marked the beginning of the Toronto Raptors 20th season in the NBA. Expect many tributes throughout the season and a 20th anniversary game where the Raptors will wear their throwback purple jerseys.
This was Demar Derozan’s sixth straight home opener for the Raptors, inching closer to Vince Carter’s record of seven.
Greg Steimsma and rookie Bruno Caboclo were inactive for Wednesday’s game, while Landry Fields, Chuck Hayes and Lucas Nogueira were all “DNP-Coach’s decision.”