One of the first things Nick Nurse noticed when he walked onto the floor of Amalie Arena was the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship banner hanging from the rafters.
Kyle Lowry scored 25 points in his first action this season, and was the bright spot in the Raptors’ lacklustre 117-105 loss to the Miami Heat.
But the story of the night was the venue. The Raptors debuted their temporary home court at Amalie, normally home to the NHL’s Lightning, and Toronto’s home away from home, for now.
“Well I think this was a big step [to feeling more at home],” Nurse said. “Playing this game was kinda one of the final pieces that we had to get through one time for sure . . . you do want to get comfortable in here and get the rhythm of the building and the rims and just the sights and sounds. And I think we took a step in that direction tonight.”
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Lowry, who didn’t travel to Charlotte for the Raptors’ first two pre-season games, knocked down a three-pointer barely a minute into the game, scored six of the Raptors’ first eight points, and shot 6-for-10 from behind the arc in his 27 minutes of action.
“It felt great. It was great to be with my teammates, with the guys, playing the game, being together on the floor,” Lowry said. “We’ve got some kinks to work out… But it’s a long, long, long journey, long season.”
Pascal Siakam had 14 points, while Chris Boucher had three threes and 11 points on the night.
KZ Okpala had 24 points to top Miami. Canadian Kelly Olynyk had 13 points and seven rebounds.
The Raptors announced Nov. 20 that they’d play out of Tampa due to Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions and rising cases in Ontario.
In the four frantic weeks since, they’ve built a world-class practice facility in two ballrooms of the downtown JW Marriott hotel. And they moved their game floor to Amalie, even hanging the 2019 championship banner from the ceiling alongside numerous Lightning banners.
The game also marked Toronto’s first in front of fans since March 9 in Utah. The Raptors are one of a handful of teams that have announced they’ll permit a limited number of fans at Amalie Arena. Friday’s crowd was just 1,400, seated in small pockets and well back of the court.
“It was certainly nice to see, obviously I think it felt a lot like some of the minor league games I coached, felt a lot like the crowds we used to have at some of those games smattered across the lower bowl like that,” Nurse said with a laugh. “But it seemed like there was some people up there having some fun, right? It really, really did and I think that’s nice to see, that’s the main thing, people can get out and enjoy themselves.”
The Raptors will allow 3,800 fans at regular-season games.
Lowry said having fans “was cool,” but it didn’t help that they hosted another Florida team.
“So we heard a little bit more cheers than jeers for them, but it’s always great to be able to have fans in front of us, man,” he said.
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Lowry said their new Tampa home will be a work in progress.
“It’s going to be like the first home game, the opening game and getting used to being in the locker-room and this, that and the other,” he said. “It’s just driving in, multiple ways to get here from wherever you’re living. If you’re staying in a hotel, the timing, traffic and trying to figure that stuff all out.
“But the city of Tampa’s been unbelievable to us and it’s gonna be a real good time for us.”
The NBA shuttered for COVID-19 on March 11, and resumed four months later in the Walt Disney World bubble. The only fans were virtual ones displayed on a huge screen.
The Raptors host the New Orleans Pelicans to open the regular season on Wednesday.
On Friday, the Raptors led 24-23 after a messy first quarter for both teams.
A running dunk by Okpala capped an 8-0 Miami run that put the Heat up by 10 late in the second. The Raptors closed the half with their own 8-0 run and trailed 58-56 at halftime.
Miami built another 10-point lead in the third, and went into the fourth up 91-83. A three-pointer by Max Strus punctuated a 15-0 Heat run that put the visitors up by 20 with 7:22 to play and it was all but game over.