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TORONTO — It might have been just a pre-season game, but to the Toronto Raptors and their fans, Monday night's pre-season opener against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers felt like so much more.
The Raptors were home — finally.
OG Anunoby scored 21 points to lead the Raptors 123-107 over the Sixers, a triumphant return in Toronto's first game at Scotiabank Arena in 584 days.
"It sure feels good to be back," coach Nick Nurse said. "There’s a buzz, a level of comfort. There’s an energy that translates from that crowd to the players. It does feel good.
"We didn't think it was that bad down (in Tampa), but it feels a heck of a lot better to be back, let's put it that way. I think the buzz in the place was probably a little bit more than you're expecting in the pre-season."
Justin Champagnie scored 10 of his 17 points in an entertaining second quarter that saw the bench provide a huge boost of energy and break the game open.
"It was pretty frenetic but that's what we've been talking about is getting up and playing hard on defence, trying to knock the ball away and convert at the other end," Nurse said. "They were doing that in kind of a heavy wave there for a while."
Scottie Barnes had 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists, while Precious Achiuwa and Svi Mykhailiuk had 13 points apiece, and Yuta Watanabe finished with 10.
"Listen, that's what we want it to look like right there," Fred VanVleet said of the pace of the young players. "I don't know if we can duplicate that 100 more times, but that's the goal. They came in and played with incredible spirit and energy and that's all you can ask for new guys, young guys especially."
Andre Drummond topped the Sixers with 19 points.
Only four players — Anunoby, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher — remain from the team that last played in Toronto, a 99-96 loss to Charlotte on Feb. 28, 2020 that head coach Nick Nurse remembers "absolutely nothing" about.
In the 19 months since, COVID-19 shuttered the NBA. And then, because of border restrictions and health and safety protocols in Ontario, the Raptors were forced to call Tampa, Fla., home last season, the only NBA team playing outside its market. While the team famously constructed a practice facility in two weeks in a Tampa Marriott ballroom, it wasn't home.
Fans at their "home games" at Amalie Arena were more often than not cheering for their opponent.
"It was great . . . great to see our fans, make eye contact with people that you know have missed it just as much as we've missed it," VanVleet said.
The Raptors open the regular season at home on Oct. 20 versus the Washington Wizards. If crossing the border was a concern for American teams, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said it "wasn't hard 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. A couple guys went out to restaurants (Sunday) night and you've gotta show your (vaccination) card and I'm all for it. Everybody felt safe so it's good."
With 11 new faces in camp, the rebuilding Raptors are a work in progress. There were moments on Monday that had fans cheering, including a no-look pass from Barnes, the popular rookie drafted No. 4 overall, to Watanabe, who finished with a dunk. Barnes flexed his muscles and flashed a wide smile in celebration.
Rookie Dalano Banton, who grew up in the Toronto neighbourhood of Rexdale and is the first Canadian ever drafted by the Raptors, earned loud cheers for his rebound and bucket late in the third quarter.
Training camp and the pre-season is about battling for positions and playing time — and a lot of teaching for Nurse.
"They're doing OK," he said, on where his players are with the offence. "I haven't done a lot and I've been experimenting a lot with moving them all around to all spots."
Monday's festive crowd of 8,016 included Canadian swim star Penny Oleksiak. The Raptors were permitted 9,900 fans, half of the arena's capacity. There's no word whether they'll eventually be able to host a full house, but the team is hopeful.
VanVleet said Monday's crowd was "not enough."
"Let's continue to fill it up," he said. "Part of what makes this place what it is is not only the individual fan but the collective of bringing everybody together and just so much energy and enthusiasm that's in the air that comes from piling up on top of each other. I don't know if we can do that given the rules, but hopefully we continue to grow that crowd and get back to what we're used to around here."
Some fans cheered as they passed through security and into the arena on Monday. Others paused to take selfies.
Jodi Tomlinson and Andrey Breniov were among the first in their seats. They said it'd been a long time coming.
"We've been saying for a year-and-a-half that as soon as they're home, we have to be there," said Tomlinson, wearing a No. 7 Kyle Lowry jersey. Her facemask was a photo of the former Raptors star from the 2019 NBA championship parade. "We're both really emotional to be here right now. It's Canada's team, and to welcome them home ... it's not a pre-season game to us."
A couple of nights earlier, Breniov had been glued to his phone "refreshing, refreshing, refreshing" in an attempt to purchase tickets, Tomlinson said with a laugh. "He finally came downstairs and screamed 'We got tickets!' And then we started to cry."
Breniov wore a No. 23 VanVleet powder blue and pink "Tampa Raptors" edition jersey, a Christmas gift last year from Tomlinson.
"We're huge fans, and when they were in Florida, we wanted to support them from home," she said.
Barnes was the last Raptor to leave the floor after a live television interview. Fans leaned over the railing to the tunnel screaming his name as he ran off the court. The rookie called it his favourite memory of the night.
"The fans showed me a lot of love after the game," he said. "That's one thing that will probably stick with me. We had a lot of fun today."
The Raptors played without Siakam (shoulder surgery), Khem Birch (health and safety protocols), Gary Trent Jr. (quad injury), and Chris Boucher, who underwent surgery over the weekend on his dislocated left middle finger. Boucher is expected to miss up to four weeks.
The Raptors led 28-25 after the first quarter, and thanks largely to 10 points from Champagnie in the second, stretched their lead to 67-54 at halftime.
Anunoby had 12 points in the third and Toronto took a 100-77 advantage into the fourth.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press