Raptors out of range in first game of season

By Eduardo A. Encina
Tampa Bay Times/TNS

TAMPA, Fla. - Even considering everything that’s been atypical for the Toronto Raptors over the past month during their Tampa transition, the atmosphere inside Amalie Arena for Wednesday’s regular season-opener was strange.

The team’s dinosaur-clawed basketball logo was prominent at midcourt, and the Raptors’ “We the North” slogan was sprawled along the sideline, but it was clear down the stretch of their 113-99 loss to the New Orleans Hornets that they weren’t at home.

After a strong start from the perimeter in the first half, the Raptors’ 3-point shooting went cold in the second half. And as the Pelicans grabbed momentum in the third quarter, it was evident they were playing in front of a neutral crowd, as the New Orleans fans grew louder.

Perhaps the limited capacity allowed them to be heard. The Raptors sold all 3,800 seats made available because of social distancing protocols, making it the smallest sellout crowd in Amalie Arena history.

“I don’t know if it’s just like fans from, like, every every team, basically,” said forward Pascal Siakam, who led the Raptors with 20 points. “I don’t know if it’s all Raptors fans or whatever the case might be. But I thought it was cool. It’s something that we haven’t seen in a while, and obviously we missed that. We have some people and some type of energy in the crowd. Just to see people, it makes it feel kind of normal.”

On the court, the Raptors’ performance was uncharacteristic. Their pesky ball-pressure defense - which ranked first in the NBA in points allowed last season - feeds their fleet-footed transition game. But in the second half Wednesday, they struggled on both ends.

After shooting 45.8 percent (11-for-24) from 3-point range in the first half en route to a 57-50 halftime lead, the Raptors made just 3 of 22 shots from that distance in the second half, including an 0-for-10 stretch in the third period, when the Raptors were outscored 38-22. The Pelicans were 7-for-8 from 3-point range in the third period and finished 45.2 percent from that range.

Guard Norman Powell wasn’t cleared to play until 2-1/2 hours before game time and missed two days of practice leading into the game after a false positive within his inner circle landed him in health and safety protocol.

“It was kind of frustrating, you know, having to sit out important days leading up to the game, just being at home hoping, wishing and praying that you get cleared just to be able to get a workout in before the game,” said Powell, who scored 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was more disappointed in a defense that allowed too many open perimeter looks down the stretch than his team’s cold shooting spell.

“I thought they had a whole bunch of look-us-right-in-the-eye shots,” Nurse said. “We didn’t press up close enough to them, and they just kind of looked at us and went ahead and shot.”

This is Tampa’s first foray into being an NBA town, even if temporarily, and sports fans come to the bay area with their own allegiances. So it’s not surprising that Pelicans star Zion Williamson drew some loud cheers from the crowd on a first period block and an equally eye-opening dunk.

Williamson scored 15 points after first-half foul trouble limited him to 28 minutes, but the star of the night was Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram, who led all scorers with 24 points.

Ingram scored 11 points in the final 4:45 of the third quarter. His first of three 3-pointers during that stretch gave New Orleans a 76-73 lead at the 3:53 mark, and his 3-pointer with 1.4 seconds left in the period gave the Pelicans a nine-point lead heading to the fourth.

“We weren’t physical enough,” Powell said. “Brandon was able to come down and just pull up in our face. I’ve got to be more physical and make him drive to the line. But top to bottom, we weren’t physical enough on the ball, we weren’t physical enough rebounding.”

The New Orleans Pelicans' Steven Adams (12) drives to the net during the second half against the Toronto Raptors' Aron Baynes (46) and Fred VanVleet (23) at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, on Dec. 23, 2020.