TORONTO – On a whiteboard in the Toronto Raptors’ locker-room, someone had scribbled “81 more!”
The Raptors ushered in a new NBA season with a victory Wednesday, but nearly squandered a 16-point lead before pulling away in the fourth quarter to beat the Boston Celtics 93-87.
Instead of celebrating their first win, they talked about the work there is to be done.
“A lot of work defensively,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, on what the team needs. “Team shoots 48 per cent on you, that’s not who we are, that not what we have to stand for. I thought we grinded it out.”
Rudy Gay topped Toronto with 19 points, Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan had 13 points apiece, while Kyle Lowry had 11 points and eight assists. Jonas Valanciunas grabbed 11 rebounds to go with eight points, while Tyler Hansbrough — acquired in the off-season— had a game-high 12 boards and seven points.
“One game at a time, we have 81 more,” said Gay. “We’re just trying to get a good start, a cushion, because there are going to be times when you can’t find a win, we want to prepare for that by getting these wins in the beginning.
“We’re in a pretty good spot, first game of the season, first real minutes we’ve played, plus we were coming off a whole week without playing”
The Raptors shot 44 per cent, and outrebounded the Celtics 48-33.
Boston’s Jeff Green had 26 points to lead all scorers, while Brandon Bass added 17.
Johnson’s dunk early in the third quarter had put Toronto up by 16 points, but the Celtics chipped away at the deficit and when Bass scored on a putback dunk, it tied the game 71-71 with a quarter left.
“Like I said at halftime, a team worth their salt in the NBA is going to make their run and they did I like the way our guys bounced back, but we should never put ourselves in that hole.”
When Johnson stepped back to drain a rare — for him — three-pointer to put Toronto up by four points with 6:21 to play, it brought the capacity crowd of 20,155 at the Air Canada Centre to its feet and injected some late-game life into the Raptors.
“I finally hit one, they left me open,” said Johnson, who grinned to his teammates as he backpedalled up the court after the shot. “(The fans) were kind of hyping me up, so I definitely had to shoot it. I knew it was good as soon as I released it.”
DeRozan scored with two-and-a-half minutes to play to give Toronto a 10-point lead. Former Raptor Kris Humphries scored to pull the Celtics within five with under a minute to go, but that was as close as Boston would come.
Canadian Kelly Olynyk, who was born in Toronto and moved to Kamloops, B.C., made his NBA regular-season debut, finishing with two points in 16 minutes for the Celtics.
“Those guys, to their credit, they turned it up a notch and were pretty good for the rest of the way,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “Gay and DeRozan made a bunch of tough shots. And those guys are really tough to handle.”
The night began with the traditional season-opening glitz and glamour. Players marched across a brightly lit stage to introductions while a drum line played. Gay took the mic and addressed the crowd, saying “Thanks for your support. Go Raps!”
Jon Bon Jovi sat courtside sandwiched between Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., and Larry Tanenbaum, MLSE’s chairman. Former Raptors fan favourite Morris Peterson was also at the game.
The Raptors are hoping this is the season they finally end their playoff drought. They went 34-48 last season to miss the post-season for the fifth straight year, then Leiweke virtually cleaned house in the front office, most notably hiring Masai Ujiri to replace Bryan Colangelo as general manager.
Management made few changes to the product on the floor, though, as all five starters Wednesday — Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Johnson and Valanciunas — were back from last year, compared to this night last season when three of the starters were brand new.
The Raptors had beaten Boston twice in the pre-season, winning six of seven exhibitions. The Celtics, who dealt veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in the off-season, went just 2-6.
The Celtics led for the entire first quarter, despite a strong start for Valanciunas — he hauled down six rebounds in the frame — and Boston took a 26-21 lead into the second.
Ross drained a three-pointer with two seconds left in the first half to cap a 12-0 Raptors run late in the second quarter and Toronto led 49-37 at halftime.
A win over Boston was key to Toronto’s early season schedule, which is gruelling once again. Among the Raptors’ early opponents: two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat, plus Houston, Memphis, Chicago and Brooklyn.
NOTES: The Celtics were without Jared Sullinger, sitting a one-game team suspension for his role in an altercation with his girlfriend that led him to face domestic violence charges. . . . The Raptors’ replacement mascot Stripes made his debut. The Raptor, who’d been with the team since its inaugural season, ruptured his Achilles tendon at an appearance during training camp. . . The Raptors have their first back-to-back on the road Friday and Saturday, when they play the Hawks in Atlanta, followed by the Bucks in Milwaukee. They host the defending NBA champion Heat on Tuesday.