It took exactly three quarters of basketball for the Rexdale kid to become a Toronto legend. The Toronto Raptors were playing underwater, murky, as dazed as they were excited from the return home after a 600-day exile. Then Dalano Banton entered the game and promptly ended the third quarter with a buzzer-beating triple from halfcourt. For the first time since before the game even began, the building had life. The nerves and jitters of unfulfilled expectations were gone. The Raptors didn’t need to win for the crowd to finally feel relief; they just had to do something fun.
“That was a defensive substitution,” Nick Nurse admitted after the game. It goes to show: miracles are rarely planned.
The second best moment of the night came before the game even started. The Toronto Raptors listened to a beat poem about returning to Toronto, and then every player received an introduction rather than just the starters. Toronto saved mostly the Canadians for last. Khem Birch and Chris Boucher received plenty of cheers, but then the camera panned to Banton, and the volume erupted. It was the loudest non-buzzer-beating-triple cheer of the night. Banton smiled and waved and basked in the glory of the crowd, his hometown crowd. He admitted after the game to being overwhelmed, but the willingness of the fans to embrace him has the made the transition smooth.
“Just to play in front of your home crowd and hear that noise and hear that chant is great,” said Banton. “I appreciate all those fans who are just loving me and taking me in with such open arms.”
Then it was Pascal Siakam’s turn to hear the crowd, before the game even started, and he smiled as wide as he has, on-camera at least, for a long time as Scotiabank bathed him in cheers. Fred VanVleet took the last spot in the starter introductions, and he stepped forward slowly, one hand in his pocket and the other raised to the crowd in appreciation, as he received his own flowers. It was an important moment for the players who were booed at home games for a season.
But the return to Toronto was too emotional, too energetic.
“I thought that it was a great intro celebration,” said VanVleet after the game. “It didn’t really help us, but it was a moment, like it is a playoff atmosphere in there for sure for game one which is — other than the ring ceremony — that was like 1A, 1B. It was pretty close. But it’s a playoff atmosphere, and we’re pretty far from that level of playoff contention, so we got to build ourselves up to get there.”
The Raptors were all nerves no muscle, all jitter no (or too much) hustle. They played flat for 36 straight minutes, short four seconds, and the offense was ugly. It wasn’t a fair representation of the the Raptors’ true abilities, although their flaws — halfcourt scoring, shooting, lapses in attention, unforced turnovers — were probably predictive of where Toronto’s weaknesses will lie. Of course, they likely won’t be as debilitating in the future.
But then the game began in the fourth quarter. With Banton breathing life into Scotiabank Arena, Toronto had 12 minutes to make true. He ambled his way into layups in transition, knifed into layups in the halfcourt. Boucher and Birch threw down some all-Canadian dunks. Nurse started to believe in the comeback and reinserted OG Anunoby and VanVleet to the game. To that point, the two were in the middle of some of the worst games of their career, both missing everything they flung at the rim.
Anunoby promptly hit a pair of triples. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t really close to enough, as a Wizards three and a missed VanVleet layup closed a door that was really only open a crack. The Raptors lost by a fairly substantial margin. But at least they salvaged something something of the night.
This game was about Toronto — the place, not the team. The return already made that true, but Banton made sure of it. The Raptors are young and developing, and Masai Ujiri has openly stated that the future is more important than the present. Low-scoring quarters and half-court struggles don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That the Raptors are back in Toronto means something, and that the hometown kid is sparking a fake comeback, was enough to put a roar back into Scotiabank. Toronto was 36 minutes into letting an open-net goal crawl away, letting it slip into nothingness as bewildered play and a silent crowd buried what should have been a special moment. Banton saved them from that.
For one night (and probably longer than that), don’t focus on the negatives. There will be time enough for that. Focus instead on the return of NBA basketball to Toronto, and on how Banton made a shot he admitted was more special than he even could have imagined. Not all wins come in the form of wins.