TORONTO — A new superstar, a new head coach, and a victory for the new-look Raptors to open what’s been one of the most-anticipated NBA regular seasons for Toronto in awhile.
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto’s prized off-season acquisition, had 24 points and 13 rebounds in his first real game as a Raptor, while Kyle Lowry had 27 points and eight assists, and Toronto beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 116-104 on Wednesday.
Fred VanVleet added 14 points, while Pascal Siakam finished with 13 on a night that marked Nick Nurse’s first game as Toronto’s head coach.
Kevin Love led the Cavs with 21 points, while Cedi Osman added 17. Canadian Tristan Thompson grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds.
Leonard was playing his first regular-season action since Jan. 13 — the two-time defensive player of the year missed all but nine games because of a quadriceps injury in a bizarre season last year in San Antonio. The 27-year-old missed his first three shots before Lowry gave up an easy basket for a pass to the trailing Leonard four minutes into the game.
Jonas Valanciunas had six points to go with 12 boards, but it was his passing — including a beautiful behind-the-back bounce pass to OG Anunoby for a dunk — that delighted the crowd.
The Raptors took a 90-75 lead into the fourth quarter. Three straight baskets by Jordan Clarkson pulled the Cavs within nine points. VanVleet scored seven consecutive points to put the brakes on Cleveland’s run, and when Serge Ibaka drilled a three-pointer with 7:29 to play, it put the Raptors up by 12 in front of a capacity Scotiabank Arena crowd of 19,915 that included former Maple Leafs captain Doug Gilmour.
The Cavs sliced the deficit to seven points with 3:08 to play. A Siakam block created a couple of free throws for Leonard at the other end — during which a handful of fans chanted “M-V-P!” — and the Raptors led by 10 with two-and-a-half minutes to play and never looked back.
The game was a bit of revenge for the Raptors after being ousted by Cleveland in three consecutive post-season runs. The second-round sweep last spring was the final straw for team president Masai Ujiri, who fired coach Dwane Casey and then unceremoniously jettisoned DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to the Spurs for Leonard and Green.
The anticipation of a fresh start was palpable in the arena, and when Leonard was announced during the glitzy pre-game introductions, the crowd’s roar drowned out the public address.
Green took centre-court for the traditional regular-season address, telling the crowd “I feel a warm welcome when I step in here.”
Nine of the top 10 Twitter trends in Toronto during the game were Raptors-related.
If there was a negative on the night, it’s that the Raptors lost Anunoby early in the fourth quarter with an orbital contusion. Delon Wright (strained groin) didn’t dress.
Neither team led by more than four points in a tight first quarter, and a layup by Green with five seconds on the clock send the Raptors into the second with a 28-25 lead.
The Raptors started to find a rhythm in the second, and a turnaround fadeaway jumper by Leonard capped a 20-7 run and gave Toronto a 13-point lead with 2:42 left in the quarter. The Raptors went into the halftime break up 60-47.
Lowry and Leonard combined for 18 points in the third quarter, and Lowry’s three with 4:25 to play in the quarter gave the Raptors a 20-point lead, their biggest of the game.
The Raptors host the Boston Celtics on Friday then fly to Washington to face the Wizards — last season’s first-round post-season opponent — on Saturday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press