Want more basketball in your inbox? Sign up for Marc Stein’s weekly N.B.A. newsletter here.
TORONTO — There was no use dwelling on who was not in the building. Not here. On this night, at least, no one at a bouncing Scotiabank Arena seemed to mind that Kawhi Leonard and Zion Williamson were nowhere to be found.
The Toronto Raptors’ rabid fan base coped comfortably without Tuesday’s high-profile absentees, predictably choosing instead to soak in a 130-122 overtime victory over the New Orleans Pelicans that followed the unveiling of the first championship banner in the history of the N.B.A.’s lone Canadian franchise.
On opening night of the Raptors’ 25th season, they drew an announced crowd of 20,787 inside, plus an estimated 1,200 fans outside in the nearby public square known as Jurassic Park. It took a comeback from a double-digit deficit, led by Pascal Siakam’s 34 points and 18 rebounds, but the Raptors ultimately managed to scratch out a victory that preserved the evening’s celebratory feel.
Mere days after landing a four-year, $130 million contract extension, Siakam hauled Toronto out of a late six-point hole in regulation before fouling out. The undrafted guard Fred Van Vleet added 34 points, seven assists and five rebounds for the Raptors, including a dagger 3-pointer from the corner with 1 minute 27 seconds remaining in overtime.
Leonard was some 2,500 miles away preparing for his debut with the Los Angeles Clippers later Tuesday, having bolted the Raptors in free agency just weeks after leading them to the championship. Williamson, meanwhile, was stuck in New Orleans after having a knee operation on Monday.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver sounded as eager as the audience to get the pregame ring ceremony started; much of his past two weeks were consumed by the league’s continuing conflict with many of its longtime business partners in China after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
T-shirts with the words “The North Stand With Hong Kong” could be seen among fans in the plaza, but there were no tangible disruptions to the game inside.
“Finally, basketball,” Silver told the arena crowd as he took the microphone ahead of tipoff before handing out rings featuring more than 650 diamonds each — believed to be a league record — to Toronto executives, coaches and players.
It was not the basketball scene league officials hoped for when the schedule was set over the summer. After playing spectacularly in his first N.B.A. preseason, Williamson was “more than shellshocked” to be felled by an injury just before making his official debut, according to a team staff member who was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly. But David Griffin, the New Orleans vice president of basketball operations, said he expected Williamson to make a full recovery and chided those who had suggested that excess weight caused the injury.
“He’s in elite condition, and he stays in elite condition,” Griffin said of Williamson, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 284 pounds. “He also has a body type that we’re learning how to deal with as a 19-year-old kid.”
“But the notion that this happened somehow because Zion is in poor condition is just asinine,” Griffin continued.
Even without Williamson, who averaged 23.3 points on a remarkable 71.4 percent shooting in four preseason games, New Orleans seized an early 11-point lead. The Pelicans’ reserves also outscored Toronto’s by 57-23, but the hosts escaped in overtime after Norman Powell missed a 3-pointer to win the game at the regulation buzzer.
Asked to describe the emotions of the evening, Nav Bhatia, Toronto’s best-known fan after the rapper Drake, said from his familiar baseline seat that they were “the highest they’ve ever been.”
“Twenty-four years ago, I came to my first game as a Raptors fan,” said Bhatia, who received his own championship ring from Ujiri at a halftime news conference. “You dream of it, but now it’s happening in reality. The banner is up. I’m so happy everybody is in celebration mode. This has really brought Canada together.”
As for how much Leonard’s absence detracted from the occasion, Bhatia added: “It doesn’t take away anything. This is a team sport. It’s not golf.”