With no fans to enjoy it, Raptors end strange 2021 on winning note

Pascal Siakam had 25 points and 19 rebounds while Fred VanVleet dropped 31 as the Toronto Raptors came away with a 116-108 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Happy Two Years!

Apologies. Bad pun, but the point stands: It’s not quite 24 months since everything got weird and that much weirder for the Toronto Raptors.

But it’s close enough.

With the Omicron variant sweeping North America and locally, the Raptors rung in 2022 as the only NBA team to hold games without fans after a policy decision made by the Ontario government on Thursday to limit attendance at indoor events to 1,000 people of 50 per cent capacity, whichever is less.

Debate whether that makes sense or not – even when Scotiabank Arena was limited to half capacity or 50 per cent, they were drawing fewer than 7,000 vaccinated and masked fans; social distancing wasn’t a problem.

But at the very least, Friday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers was deeply weird.

It that sense it was a fitting end of a year that was all that and more for the Raptors -- who were just starting their lost season in Tampa this time 12 months ago and were hopeful that 2021-22 would be their return to ‘normal’.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 called ‘cap’ and ‘normal’ got pushed back for a few weeks or months or who knows.

But what is normal, anyway? There were fewer than 200 people in the building, so no fans on hand to see what it’s like without fans.

And the Raptors? Weird has become second nature.

"It was more normal than not, to be honest with you,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet who returned after missing two games and 10 days in health-and-safety protocols. “I didn't even think about it until we were just talking about in the locker room … I don't know the numbers but I would say we probably played just as much if not more ‘fan-less’ basketball than we have packed stadiums, so it is what it is.

“I'm gonna make excuses or, you know, dwell on the challenges and adversity that we're facing. We'll try to get as many wins as we can in this building. Fans or no fans, we got to go out there and play basketball and do the best we can.”

On the floor, there was some hope the Raptors would at least look more familiar.

After two games when they had as many 10 regulars in health-and-safety protocols they welcomed as full a lineup as they have had all season. Along with VanVleet, Khem Birch, Precious Achiuwa, OG Anunoby and Justin Champagnie all returned from extended COVID-related absences, leaving only Isaac Bonga and hardship signee DJ Wilson in health-and-safety protocols.

And guess, what? Having almost all your key players back makes a difference. In a game that was played with a razor-thin margin for most of the fourth quarter, the difference makers were VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who combined for a quick 7-0 run in the final 94 seconds that proved the difference as the Raptors brought in the new year with a much-needed 116-108 win that improved their record to 15-17.

“It’s good to have most of your weapons,” said VanVleet. “Pascal was getting an advantage, [Anunoby] got hot there in the second half. And once we got into the bonus, I just liked the matchup they had on the block. They were switching and worst-case scenarios those guys were going to the line [or] making the right plays out. I was definitely tired so it was a good thing those guys were able to step up and make some plays, so I still had some juice for those last couple of buckets in the fourth quarter.”

The Clippers fell to 18-18.

It wasn’t the homecoming that Serge Ibaka was hoping for -- the former Raptors centre finished with seven points on six shots in 18 minutes as he continued to try to work his way back to form after back surgery.

But his old teammates – youngsters to his veteran presence when he was a Raptor – took care of business. Siakam finished with 25 points, and a career-high tying 19 rebounds and seven assists in 39 minutes, looking none-the-worse-for-wear as he followed up his 42-minute outing his first game back from protocols with 40 minutes Friday night.

VanVleet didn’t get a chance to ease his way back in either as he put up 31 points and nine assists in his 39 minutes and held the fort down the stretch. He shot just 10-of-27 from the floor -- “jelly legs,” he said -- and Anunoby did his part too, with 26 points in his 36 minutes.

That the Raptors shot just 11-of-35 from deep to the Clippers' 15-of-34 made things a little more difficult, but their 18-3 edge in offensive rebounding was the equalizer.

Win or lose, it was a very odd night.

There were any number of examples of how strange it is to play -- or watch -- an NBA game in an arena that is normally charged by the electricity of 19,800 but instead is limited to 1,000 people maximum -- staff, players, families, media -- with no tickets sold at all.

How about having the national anthems, as tradition dictates, performed on the video board by Scotiabank Arena's in-house anthem singer Doug Tranquada in a silent building?

Or having Mark ‘Strizzy’ Strong roar out his pre-game introductions while spotlighted at centre court, only to have vague crowd noise piped in after to greet VanVleet or Anunoby, who were making their first starts since being sidelined by COVID protocols on Dec. 22?

Or The Raptor sprinting around the building in full costume with no one to high-five?

And all of this going one while the hallways at Scotiabank Arena – which are usually teeming with fans hustling to get a beer or a jersey before the ball goes up – remained dim, quiet and empty.

But the most COVID moment for my money came after the first timeout in the opening quarter when the Raptors unveiled a wonderful video tribute for Ibaka, who was playing his first game in Toronto since Feb. 25, 2020, the last of 228 he played in Toronto as a Raptor.

It was a great video, with Ibaka’s on-court highlights mixed in deftly with the off-court persona – the ‘how hungry are you’ Serge and the ‘I do art’ fashion icon Serge -- that emerged over his four impactful seasons with the club.

But there was no one to see it and no ovation following it.

The game went on and both teams had to deal with it, however. Arguably, the Raptors have had more experience dealing with basketball played outside the norm.

The only regular missing was rookie Scottie Barnes, who somehow developed tendinitis in his right knee while he was out for 10 days in COVID protocols. “I’m as surprised as you guys are,” said coach Nick Nurse. “It seems kind of strange that we played a lot, and he only went out because of protocols and had a lot of time off. We’ll just have to work him back in I guess.”

In the meantime, Nurse used 12 players in a range of combinations as he tried to find some kind of spark and in particular some kind of contribution from the bench. The newly regrouped starters came out strong -- each of Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., VanVleet, Anunoby and Birch had one field goal in the opening minutes before anyone else got their second. The energy was good, the defence was sharp and the Clippers -- playing without head coach Ty Lue, who entered protocols Friday morning -– looked a bit lost playing in such an unusual environment.

The Raptors jumped out to a 21-6 lead midway through the first quarter. But the Raptors struggled whenever they went to their bench, a theme for 2021 if there ever was one. The Clippers clawed their way back into it thanks to their bench as Amir Coffey closed the quarter with a quick eight-point flurry and Los Angeles was down only three. The Raptors were swimming upstream after that as they trailed 62-56 at half.

They trailed 87-82 to start the fourth, but when the starters came in they were able to right the ship, although they owed some credit to Chris Boucher and Champagnie who provided some energy on the glass that helped bridge the gap until they got there. It was a fun game, all things considered, the end of a bizarre year in basketball and elsewhere.

And stranger still, no one was here to see it. Maybe next year.

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