TORONTO – It may just be a pre-season game, but for the Toronto Raptors and their fans, Monday night’s pre-season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers felt much more.
The Raptors were home – at last.
Ozzy Anunobi scored 21 points to lead the Raptors 123-107 on the Sixers, a winning return in Toronto’s first game in 584 days at the Scotiabank Arena.
Justin Champagne added 17 points, while Scotty Barnes, Precious Achiuwa and Swei Mykhailuk had 13 points, and Yuta Watanabe finished with 10.
Andre Drummond is at the top of the Sixers with 19 points.
Only four players – Anunnobi, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher – are survived by the team that last played in Toronto, losing 99–96 to Charlotte on February 28, 2020, about head coach Nick Nurse. remembers “absolutely nothing”.
In the 19 months since, COVID-19 shut down the NBA. And then, due to border restrictions and health and safety protocols in Ontario, the Raptors were forced to move to Tampa, Fla., last season. While the team built the famous practice facility in two weeks at the Tampa Marriott Ballroom, it was not home.
At their “home games” at Amalie Arena, fans often did not cheer for their opponent.
Finally back on the floor of Scotiabank, did it feel the same as Tampa?
“Oh no, it’s different here,” Annobi said. “Tampa was good but it’s so different here… it’s good to be back.”
The Raptors open the regular season at home on October 20 against the Washington Wizards. If crossing the border was a concern for American teams, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said it was “not difficult at all.”
“I like what they’re doing, honestly,” he said. “You have to do the app and all that stuff. Our guys were pretty easy with it. It’s safe. Some people went out to the restaurant (Sunday) night and you have to show your (vaccination) card and I’m up for it. Everyone Feels safe so it’s good.”
With 11 new faces in the camp, the rebuilding of the Raptor is in progress. There were moments on Monday when fans cheered, including a no-look pass from Barnes after the popular rookie drafted No. 4 overall, to Watanabe, who ended with a dunk. Barnes flexed his muscles and flashed a wide smile in celebration.
Rookie Delano Banton, who grew up in the Toronto neighborhood of Rexdale and is the first Canadian drafted by the Raptors, earned loud cheers for his rebounds and buckets late in the third quarter.
Training camp and pre-season is all about struggling for positions and play time – and a lot of education to nurse.
“They are doing fine,” he said, where his players are with the offense. “I haven’t done much and I’ve been experimenting a lot with taking them all over the place.”
Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak was among the celebratory crowd of 8,016 on Monday. The Raptors were allowed 9,900 fans, which was half the capacity of the arena. There’s no word when they’ll eventually be able to host a Full House, but the team is hopeful.
Some fans rejoiced as they walked through security and the arena on Monday. Others stopped to take selfies.
Jodi Tomlinson and Andrey Brenniov were first in their seats. He said that it has been a long time in coming.
“We’ve been saying for a year and a half that we have to be there as soon as they’re at home,” said Tomlinson, wearing a No. 7 Kyle Lowry jersey. His facemask was a photo of the former Raptors star from the 2019 NBA Championship parade. “We’re both really passionate about being here right now. This is the Canadian team, and to welcome them home… it’s not a pre-season game for us.”
Tomlinson laughed that a few nights earlier, Breniov was “fresh, fresh, fresh” glued to his phone in an attempt to buy a ticket. “Finally he came downstairs and shouted ‘We got the ticket!’ And then we started crying.”
Breniov wore a No. 23 VanVleet powder blue and pink “Tampa Raptors” edition jersey, a Christmas present from Tomlinson last year.
“We are huge fans, and when they were in Florida, we wanted to support them from home,” she said.
The Raptors played without Siakam (shoulder surgery), Khem Birch (health and safety protocol), Gary Trent Jr (quad injury), and Chris Boucher, who had surgery on his left middle finger over the weekend. Boucher is likely to be released for four weeks.
The Raptors led 28-25 after the first quarter, and thanks to a massive 10 points from Champagne in the second, extended their lead to 67-54 at halftime.
Anunobi had 12 points in the third and Toronto took a 100-77 advantage in the fourth.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 4, 2021.