A night of firsts: Raptors celebrate title in unforgettable opener

Toronto-Raptors

Toronto Raptors players watch their 2019 NBA championship pennant being raised during a ceremony to celebrate their championship ahead of their home opener against New Orleans Pelicans in Toronto on Tuesday October 22, 2019. (Chris Young / CP)

TORONTO – There aren’t many moments where the game itself is secondary in professional sports. Most of the time it’s due to something horrible – an intrusion on the escapist fantasies that unite us all. Or maybe terrible weather.

But Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, was one and it was because of something wonderful, special and never to be repeated.

The Toronto Raptors may win another NBA championship – there are a number of hardcore backers on the current roster that believe to their bones they can do it again this season. They may be the only ones, but this is a group prone to taking people’s money when they bet against them, so be warned.

But even if they pull off that unlikely miracle the season after they lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, there will never be another night like Tuesday.

It might not end up being the only title the Raptors ever win, but it was the first: the franchise’s first ring ceremony, its first banner raising, its first moment to bask in the ever-lasting sun a championship brings.

Oh, there was a game. The New Orleans Pelicans were in town, albeit without prize attraction Zion Williamson, the electric rookie sidelined by minor knee surgery before his career could even begin.

The Raptors won 130-122 in overtime, but it took a while to get around to it, for good reason.

There were more important things at hand, although Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry had his young team on the floor to soak it all in. They were out there for nearly 40 minutes. They might have been the only ones who minded.

The crowd was in its seats early and the roars went up when the Raptors came out with white warmup tops with the Larry O’Brien trophy emblazoned on the back and “NBA Champions” in a matching gold-lettered arc.

The arena went dark as the court itself became the screen for championship montage that played as the Raptors, the team’s ownership and executives looked on, flanked by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. All this before the trophy itself was lit up at centre court with the rings – as big as a piece of furniture was Nick Nurse’s only slightly exaggerated description – on two blue velvet circular shelves around the base. It was all very twinkly.

Then came a video capturing the highs and lows of the two-month odyssey that captured the nation last spring. The roar for Leonard’s four-bounce series winner against the Philadelphia 76ers was a reasonable facsimile of the in-arena original back in May. It ended, of course, with shots from the parade. It was a beautiful reminder.

“It was a lot better than what I expected,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet who started alongside Kyle Lowry. “I went into it with an open mind. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I thought it would be kind of be anti-climactic in one sense, kind of dull us out for the game, but it was quite the opposite. It really got the emotions again, watching it and feeling that energy was amazing.

“I mean you only really remember Game 6, so you kind of forget what the ride was and the journey and what it took to get there. It also was a reminder of what it meant to the fans in the city and the country.”

And then Silver ventured to centre court and took the microphone.

“Let’s get out the rings,” he said. And so it began.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri was first and the crowd chanted “MVP” when he got his. Long-time assistant coach and local son Jamal Magloire got a big cheer when he came out, raising the roof with his massive paws. And Nurse got the predictable ovation, as he shared a long embrace with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum. Nurse came to the game wearing the ring he got for winning the state championship in high school in Iowa. His new one is bigger.

VanVleet ambled out cool and slow – what else would you expect – although it was all a ruse as he picked up the pace when the ball went up (eventually). Serge Ibaka danced a little and smiled brightly (although the tough man from Congo was brought to tears when the banner was unveiled).

Pascal Siakam, the club’s new $130-million man got the roar you would expect the foundation of the Raptors future to get, and Lowry, who was instrumental in the design of the ring that featured 650 total diamonds among other features on what was described as the largest championship ring in NBA history, nearly brought the house down.

“Such a special night, on behalf of my teammates, the organization and my guys that aren’t here,” Lowry said, naming the departed Leonard, Green and Jeremy Lin. “We want to thank you guys and the country of Canada.”

And then Lowry gathered his teammates around for the banner unveiling, but not before first chiding Ibaka for being late to the huddle as they gazed into their new baubles.

“Five, four, three, two, one,” went Lowry’s countdown and the banner was dropped – black with red trim, white lettering and a gold trophy – taking its place on the east side of the building, adjacent to an Eastern Conference champions banner and another commemorating six Atlantic Division crowns.

It looked natural. Eventually, the game had to start though.

“It was lot more than I thought it was going to be (emotionally),” said Nurse. “I guess I just didn’t prepare myself too well. I thought they’d just present us a ring and going through the whole playoff thing and down there and the crowd was pretty amped up, it was pretty emotional.

“I haven’t really watched many of those games but you’re around enough and see enough highlights and you just, like, man, that shot he hit and that shot he hit and … it’s really something.”

The concern was the game itself would be a letdown, an afterthought lost in a swirl of giddiness. There was some of that. The Raptors trailed 13-4 before a timeout with three minutes played after opening up with a wild OG Anunoby drive to nowhere, an airball in transition from Lowry, an airball from three by Anunoby and a Lowry turnover in transition.

That was the worst of it as the Raptors clawed back to trail 30-27 and managed to keep the Pelicans in reach at the half 61-56, even as New Orleans went 10-of-22 from three to the Raptors’ 4-of-15 mark. Full credit to VanVleet who looks like he’s serious about keeping the starting role Nurse rewarded him with. The undersized point guard was the Raptors’ best player early, scoring 15 of his 34 in the first two periods getting the rim and finishing with an efficiency that was almost unimaginable when he broke into the league.

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VanVleet added nine more points in the third quarter as the Raptor headed into the fourth with a slim 88-86 lead. He kept up his defence too, drawing amount of time of promising Canadian rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Pelicans other first-rounder, taken 16 picks after Williamson at 17th overall. The rangy combo guard looks every inch an NBA player, but he’ll have to figure out how to deal with smart defenders like VanVleet, who helped harass Alexander-Walker into a 1-of-10 night.

But down the stretch, the Raptors were going to need more than VanVleet. Siakam seemed like the logical candidate to step up. It wasn’t easy going for Siakam who saw the kind of defensive attention befitting a primary option (as his 11-of-26 shooting would indicate), but his triple midway through the fourth put the Raptor up one, another put them up four.

“I’m capable of scoring and scoring in different ways, so I know what is expected of me,” said Siakam. “And I’m going to continue to work hard and help my team win.”

The Pelicans pushed back – aided in part by a rough night by a clearly rusty Lowry (it was just his second game since June 13 due to off-season thumb surgery) who picked up a technical foul in frustration and closed out poorly on a Frank Jackson three that put New Orleans up six with 4:09 to play.

Fortunately, Siakam got on a roll. A three-point play and then a put-back layup helped the Raptors regain the lead again with 2:37 to play and giving him 14 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth.

Unfortunately, Siakam picked up his sixth foul on a charge with 50.1 seconds left and the Raptors trailing by two. After Lowry got the line and tied it with 29.2 seconds left, the Raptors had the ball with 8.9 seconds left. A long three-ball by Norm Powell was on line but long and the Raptors were in overtime.

They figured out a way. Marc Gasol rumbled through the lane for a three-point play then found VanVleet for an open three. They got some stops. Lowry all but iced it with another triple with 56.7 left as he scored five of his 22 (on 4-of-15 shooting) in the extra frame.

They got it done.

But hey, did the outcome of the game really matter? For once not all that much, although it was nice in an icing on the cake kind of way.

For one night the ring was the thing. And the banner.

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