Every audience needs a villain, and Goran Dragic was right there.
That’s the best way to describe the energy that was coursing (rippling?) through a sold-out crowd at Scotiabank Arena, the first time the Toronto Raptors' home venue could operate at full capacity this year after the provincial government eased its COVID restrictions on Tuesday,
The gathering of like-minded people under one roof for a shared purpose generated some warm moments, such as when Fred VanVleet – who sat out the game with a sore knee – was recognized as an All-Star with his family at centre court, or when Thaddeus Young was introduced as a Raptor for the first time.
But in the early stages the crowd came most alive when Dragic, the erstwhile Raptor entered the game for the Brooklyn Nets late in the first quarter and was booed every time he touched the ball.
Now, that’s some nostalgia: Raptors fans have always been able to whip up the indignation of the scorned and it was nice to see they haven’t lost it after an NBA title, through COVID 1.0, the Tampa Tank or Omicron.
Dragic may have been a Raptor for all of two minutes – well, technically 107.4 minutes of floor time spread out over six games and five months of contractual obligation – but a Raptor fan never forgets that he didn’t want to play for Toronto in the first place after he was traded here from Miami, or that he asked to be away from the team (for personal reasons, but whatever) or that he was posting workout videos from South Beach when VanVleet was killing himself playing 45 minutes a night.
Was it a bit much? Maybe.
“I was surprised,” said Pascal Siakam. “I don't know. I like Goran, so I don’t know. Like, what happened?
Ah, it’s probably not worth getting too far into it.
But it’s only fun to boo the bad guy if, you know, the good guys win. And the Raptors' home crowd had a role in that too as the intensity picked up as the game wound down and the chants of ‘defence’ started raining down for the first time in 2022, with some ‘Let’s Go Raptors’ and ‘Ref you suck’ mixed in where necessary.
The Raptors came back from down eight to outlast the visiting Nets 109-108 for their second win in as many nights over Brooklyn. It also secured the season series for Toronto, which could matter for tie-breaking purposes because the seventh-place Raptors and eighth-place Brooklyn could square off in a play-in game.
“This is a big arena to be empty,” said Gary Trent Jr., who hit six three throws in the final 30 seconds to help ice the game. “So, it was very quiet in here, you had to bring your own energy, but now we can do that with the crowd behind us and within ourselves.
Toronto’s record improved to 34-27 as they moved to three games ahead of Brooklyn, who fell to 32-30 and were without Kevin Durant (knee), Kyrie Irving (vaccination status), Ben Simmons (back), Joe Harris (ankle) and Andre Drummond.
There was no booing of Dragic down the stretch as he wasn’t on the floor for the Nets, his night complete with 10 points and two assists in 15 minutes.
Raptors fans had plenty to cheer about. Rookie Scottie Barnes was brilliant again as he finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds and four assists. He made a number of key plays down the stretch, including a jumper against the shot clock that gave Toronto its first lead since the third quarter and a perfect pass to Young that put the Raptors up five with two minutes to play. He also had a blocked shot on a game-tying effort by the Nets' Seth Curry in the final minute.
Malachi Flynn was excellent again subbing in for VanVleet as he finished with 15 points and eight assists in 43 minutes, while Young filled in well for OG Anunoby (out with a fractured finger) as the veteran provided 11 points off the bench and was part of head coach Nick Nurse’s closing lineup that worked well even after Siakam (18 points, eight rebounds and six assists) fouled out with 2:40 to play.
Trent Jr. led Toronto with 24 points.
There were no hard feelings on the Raptors side towards Dragic. When he took the floor to shoot before the game it was all smiles, laughs and bro-hugs with his old team.
Part of the reason the Raptors parted ways with the veteran was that they wanted to make more minutes available for youngsters like Flynn. But it is only now that the second-year guard has taken full advantage.
“We gave him some chances [early in the season] and he didn't really look like he was ready to go,” said Nurse. “He just wasn't impacting, wasn't making shots, wasn't [giving] what I thought we needed … [and] we gave him a few shots here and there lately and he's produced and that's the only thing I can judge it on. Right? You go out there and you play your minutes and if you play well, I'm gonna play you, period. If you don't, I can't. And that's just the fact of it.”
Dragic started the Raptors' first game of the season and was part of the rotation for the next handful but played poorly, got buried and stayed that way until he requested a leave from the team. Raptors fans didn’t exactly give Dragic the Vince Carter treatment but did the job and booed at all the right moments. Dragic started 0-for-2 and missed a pair of free throws, so maybe it was working. Then he hit his next three shots, put his finger to his lips as if to shush the crowd and helped send the Nets into halftime with a 59-55 lead.
Prior to that the – for the second straight game – the best point guard on the floor was Flynn.
“I’m proud of him, I’m proud of Malachi,” said Siakam. “ I think, again, he’s been going through a lot and I always tell him, I’ll be talking to him, sometimes I text him, I’m probably sure he’s surprised like, ‘Why is Pascal texting me?’ This is the NBA and it’s tough, we all go through tough times and I’m just happy that he’s been given an opportunity and he’s taking advantage of it. He’s been playing his role well on both ends of the floor, controlling the game, making tough shots, his speed up the floor is great, and I think he’s making good decisions. We’re gonna need that from him and I just want him to keep it going, keep it going, I’m proud of him.”
Dragic might have played the role of villain for Raptors fans looking to vent, but there were plenty of positive things to cheer about, and Flynn was foremost among them.
1: For good reason, professional athletes aren’t routinely expected to play while injured or shamed for not doing it. Not anymore, at least. It was the kind of mind set – as an example – that saw a lot of players keep playing despite suffering concussions not all that long ago, taking risks we’re all much more cognizant of now. Things have come far enough that an organization or league seen as not properly managing a potential concussion gets called out on it. There is probably no league where players are better prepared to manage their own health risks than the NBA. It’s a players’ league and it’s evident in everything from ‘load management’, where stars are rested pre-emptively so they don’t get hurt, to the cautious and gradual return to play protocols that most teams observe as players get ready to compete again.
So it will be interesting to see what happens with Anunoby and his fractured ring finger on his shooting hand. He missed his fourth straight game after an X-ray detected the injury after it was still sore following the all-star break. The Raptors got good news when Anunoby was cleared by a hand specialist in Los Angeles on Monday: he won’t require surgery and he should be healed fully in about two weeks.
But what to do in the meantime? No one knows when Anunoby suffered the injury, but he was playing with it before the break.
“The specialist said it was nearly healed,” said Nurse before the game. “It’s getting better every day. I guess we’re waiting to determine – he’s able to play on it – [but] they said probably within two weeks it would be fully healed, so I guess we’re just trying to decide which route we’re going to take.”
The reality is it will Anunoby’s decision, with advice from both the team medical staff, the specialist and guided by his agents.
Can he play through it? It will be up to him.
“It’s been bothering him, yeah, for sure,” said Nurse. “It hurts. I’ve had many discussions with him about it. It hurts. It probably bothers him physically. It probably bothers him mentally, knowing that there’s something right there in your shooting hand.”
2: VanVleet’s knee injury also falls in the category of “it’s not bad, but it’s still a problem.” VanVleet left the game after banging his right knee at some point during the Raptors' loss to New Orleans on Feb. 14. He sat out the Raptors' win over Minnesota the next night, jogged around a bit on All-Star weekend and shot 11-of-34 in two Raptors blowout losses after the break before sitting out the home-and-home set with the Nets.
“There is nothing wrong with it. He’s got a bruise,” said Nurse.
Could it get worse if he plays, Nurse was asked. “Yeah. It’s bruised, he could get hit again. He could play, as we’ve seen, as well. Obviously it probably gets a lot better with rest, a lot quicker. For me, if guys want to play, we’re playing them, if they want to play through it. I know it sounds like a super cliché: Nobody’s super healthy this time of year. Nobody’s ever 100 per cent 60 games in. But it’s true.”
3: There was some irony that on the day the provincial government lifted its capacity restrictions and did away with the requirement that places like restaurants or gyms had to check vaccine passports and that Scotiabank Arena was allowed to be full for the first time since Dec. 13, that there were a few high-profile absences due to COVID. Raptors broadcasters Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong were sidelined, as was Nets head coach Steve Nash.