With no crowd to help lift them, Raptors dig a hole too deep to climb out of

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Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) drives past Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little (9) during first half NBA action. (Frank Gunn/CP)

They said there would be nights like this.

Actually, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said it just the other night.

As his team was travelling through the U.S., playing tough games against good teams in full buildings, he was asked about the contrast between playing on the road in front of crowds and playing at Scotiabank Arena in front of banks of empty seats with only piped in crowd noise for company.

“I’ve got to say it’s disappointing at home to go out there and play,” he said. “It’s pretty lifeless in there. I think we’ve all probably experienced [playing in empty buildings] in the last couple years. It is disappointing and difficult to get some energy going some nights. We’ve done a pretty good job with it, I’d say 50-50. Maybe half of the games we’ve had no fans.”

“I keep using the line, we have to create our own fun on the sidelines and had a good time. The other couple games both teams were looking up in the stands and getting nothing back and you could kind of see it and feel it. “

You could on Sunday night, as the Raptors were whomped out of the gate by the visiting Portland Trail Blazers and were in too deep a hole to dig themselves out of, ultimately losing 111-105.

The final score was a bit misleading. The Raptors woke up in the second half after being comatose for the first 24 minutes and at least demonstrated that, when they play with even a little bit of zip, they can do what they’ve been doing most of the time when they’ve had most of their rotation healthy and available.

Doing it without a crowd isn’t easy though, especially on nights when the legs are heavy and it’s hard to get wound up.

“It sucks,” said Nurse after the game of the challenge of playing at home without fans as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions on indoor gatherings. “We talk about it and we say ‘hey, we know what the deal is going to be, we’re going to have to try to create this ourselves and just couldn’t do it tonight … Whatever your views on it, right, wrong or indifferent, it’s hard.”

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In the second half, the Raptors began pressing full court and turned the tempo of the game up as high as they physically could. It paid off in the third quarter, when Toronto manhandled the Blazers 33-22, allowing them to start the fourth quarter down by 19, 86-67, and at least theoretically have a chance to win.

From the Raptors’ point of view, there was precedent. It’s been two years since Toronto came back from down 30 in the second half, and 23 to start the fourth quarter, to win in regulation against the Dallas Mavericks.

Anyone who was there will never forget it. Scotiabank Arena was full and on fire on that Sunday night – Dec. 22, 2019.

The crowd wasn’t going to lift them on Sunday, but then again, they only had to come back from down 19 – check that, the Blazers were up 24 with 8:32 left.

You’d have to think Nurse was contemplating waving the white flag at that point and maybe giving his starters a break.

Nope. And good thing too. Toronto responded with a 19-5 ran that got them within 10 with 3:42 to play, and then cut the Blazers’ lead to four with 84 seconds left when Gary Trent Jr. banged in a pair of threes and Fred VanVleet added one of his own. The Blazers responded with a triple to push the lead back to seven, but Toronto still wasn’t done.

VanVleet engineered a lay-up for Pascal Siakam and then stole the ball on the inbounds to give Siakam another bucket and it was a two-possession game with 29 seconds to go. That was as close as it got. Portland made a lay-up, knocked down a free throw and Toronto’s night was done.

You can’t knock the hustle.

“Yeah, it’s tough, but I’m super proud of the guys man. I’ve been in the league for a little bit and I just feel like anytime teams are down like that, they kind of pack it in,” said Siakam. “But I’m proud of the guys for continuing to fight and those are the type of guys you want to go to war with. At the end of the day things weren’t going our way but we got to keep going, we got to keep fighting and you know find a way.

“We did spend a lot of energy [with the full-court pressure] but I did think everyone gave their all and that’s all we can ask for. Obviously, it wasn’t the way we wanted to play that game, but things happen and once it does you got to continue to fight and I loved our fight tonight.”

How to evaluate?

The Raptors deserve credit for dominating the second half and finding the energy to come back when all seemed hopeless. Not a lot of teams would have an effort like that in their DNA, and Toronto does. They also deserve some blame for not coming to the arena ready to play.

And you have to wonder if it was all worth it, given that VanVleet clocked in at 42 minutes and the NBA’s minutes leader maybe could have benefited if the Raptors had just stayed blown out, so to speak.

That’s not how he does it, though. VanVleet finished with 19 points, eight assists and five steals and was a huge reason the Raptors came back at all. Siakam ended up with 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists while Chris Boucher had 11 off the bench.

The Raptors shot 39.8 per cent from the floor and 18-of-54 from deep, as they fell to 22-22 on the season. The Blazers – playing without Damian Lillard (abdominal surgery) and former Raptor Norm Powell (personal reasons) – were led by CJ McCollum, who ended up with 19 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, helping Portland improve to 20-26.

Most of Toronto’s damage came in the second half, but before that?

If there was ever any question about whether the fake crowd noise could be set to ‘boo’, it need not ever be asked again. If there was no booing being piped in during the first half, there will be no booing, ever.

Safe to say that with real, live sentient beings in the building, there would have been some boos.

It’s not often a team simply doesn’t show up, and in particular the Raptors, who have a long-standing habit of not getting blown out. But whatever the reason – first game back after a long road trip; a starting unit that has played an enormous amount of minutes lately (VanVleet and Siakam had played 39 or more minutes in seven straight games before Sunday); the lack of crowd available to off set both of those factors – Toronto got smacked early and didn’t hit back for the entire first half.

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Toronto was down 10-2 before the game was three minutes old and 25-4 before eight minutes had passed. By the end of the quarter, Toronto was down 33-15 and the box score was ugly. The Raptors starters – VanVleet, Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes and Trent Jr. – shot a collective 2-of-21 from the floor to begin the game and it was mostly on merit, as missing was any kind of sharp cutting, decisive passing or the kind of all-out effort to come up with offensive rebounds that has helped the Raptors through so many dry spells.

Well, get that one out of your system right? Still three quarters left.

Hmmm, not so much. The Raptors followed up one of their worst first quarters of the season (12 is their season low) with a stinker of a second quarter. You knew things were bad when Nurse subbed in Dalano Banton, the rookie from Rexdale who has typically got the tap only when things are going badly and Nurse is hoping the long-limbed point guard who excels in the chaos of the open court can get something going. The Raptors were down 26 when Banton saw the floor for his first meaningful minutes since the Raptors played Cleveland on Boxing Day with four regular roster players and four hardship signees and lost by 45 points.

“They went up in a half and we felt like if we just do what we have to do and come out strong and play with a little more desperation, play with a little more pace, we could cut it down,” said Banton, who had five points, four rebounds and two assists in just under 12 minutes. “We never feel like we’re gonna be out of it whether it’s 20, 30, we’re gonna go to the final buzzer like we did today.”

There wasn’t quite enough magic this time. The Raptors did cut the Trail Blazers’ lead to 22 after a VanVleet triple set up by a Banton steal, but Portland surged back with a 14-3 run that put the Blazers up by 34 before a Trent Jr. triple at the buzzer cut the visitors’ lead to 64-34 heading into the half.

The Blazers were shooting 11-of-19 from three at that point, with four different Blazers having made at least two from deep. The Raptors were 6-of-28 from deep and 5-of-20 from inside the arc, a time-tested formula for getting beat badly.

In the end, the Raptors were just beaten. You could say at least no one was there to see it, but then again, maybe that was part of the problem.

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