TORONTO — Back on the Air Canada Centre floor almost five months to the day since their thrilling and historic playoff run came to an end, expectations were high.
DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and the Toronto Raptors delivered.
DeRozan scored 40 points, while Valanciunas had a career-high 32 plus 11 rebounds to lift the Raptors to a 109-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons in a crowd-pleasing season opener on Wednesday.
"That’s what we said: Give (DeRozan) the ball and let him work," DeMarre Carroll said in a festive locker-room after the win. "He was on fire. He played like he’d been playing the whole season already. It was good for the team. JV came in and stepped in, too. It was the JV and DeMar show tonight."
A couple of records went down on the night. DeRozan, who scored 21 of his points in a stunning third quarter, broke Vince Carter’s record for an opening-night performance (39 points) set in 2003. And he and Valanciunas became the first teammates in NBA history to score 40 and 30 in a season-opener.
Kyle Lowry finished with 10 points and eight assists, while Tobias Harris had 22 to top the Pistons.
The Raptors are coming off an historic season that saw them take the Cleveland Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference final. Then DeRozan signed a five-year deal worth US$139 million in the off-season, famously saying "I am Toronto."
The Raptors all-star took the mic before tipoff, telling the crowd "I want to thank you, the best fans in the world. Hope you enjoy the season." Then the 27-year-old got to work, producing a performance that rookie Pascal Siakam described as "poetry" and had Lowry marvelling.
"He was playing unbelievable, lights out," Lowry said. "Some of the shots he was making I said to myself a few times ‘Wow.’ That was an impressive game by him, man.
"He put himself to a higher standard, he’s got to average 40 now," Lowry added.
DeRozan and Valanciunas got off to a hot start, combining for 25 points in the first quarter as the Raptors roared back from a seven-point deficit to take a 33-23 lead into the second.
Toronto took a 58-46 advantage into the dressing room at halftime, and then DeRozan’s outstanding third quarter, which included a rim-rattling dunk, sent the Raptors into the fourth with an 86-71 lead.
DeRozan said he never keeps track of scoring records.
"Somebody always informs me after a game," he said. "It’s a cool thing."
Valanciunas also came to play. He flattened Andre Drummond with an errant elbow to the face in the first quarter, then brought the capacity ACC crowd that included Dalton Pompey of the Toronto Blue Jays to its feet with a massive second-quarter dunk, shoving his way past Boban Marjanovic to the hoop.
When DeRozan spoke to reporters afterward, Valanciunas chimed in with: "History baby."
Glancing over his shoulder, DeRozan told Valanciunas: "You can tell your son that 20 years from now."
Both players were ushered off the ACC floor with standing ovations as the clock ticked down.
Siakam, meanwhile, became the first rookie to start for Toronto since Valanciunas in 2012, and didn’t look out of place, playing 9:15 before coach Dwane Casey subbed him off. He finished with nine rebounds.
"I don’t have words to explain how it was," he said of his NBA debut. "It was just an awesome feeling, that’s what I’ll remember."
He was in awe of DeRozan’s performance.
"It’s one thing to watch somebody on TV, and actually being there and seeing how effortless it was," he said. "It was amazing, it was like poetry, getting to the spots, shooting over people. Like how does he do that?"
Casey, who coached his sixth consecutive season-opener with Toronto, was asked about the satisfaction of a first-night win.
"At least for one night, but I said to the guys in there we got one down and 81 to go," the coach said. "This is good but the grind begins. It’s one game."
The Raptors were playing without Jared Sullinger, who had surgery on his foot on Monday, and Lucas Nogueira, who’s sidelined with a sprained ankle.
Toronto hosts LeBron James and the Cavaliers on Friday.