Game No. 2 – Pacers 90, Raptors 85

1- What an atmosphere. Seriously, anyone who doesn’t think Toronto can be a basketball town should have been forced to sit in the ACC for Wednesday night’s home opener. The “feels like a playoff game” line is used way too often in sports media, but the atmosphere in the ACC last night was pretty much as close as you can get to playoff atmosphere in the regular season, especially for a team who most fans have accepted will be a cellar dweller.

An intense defensive, physical matchup, a near colour-out in the stands, white towels waving, near standing ovations for every hustle play leading into a timeout, Kardinal Offishall performing at halftime and Justin Bieber sitting courtside. Just a great night of basketball to experience in Toronto.

2- Speaking of music, finally, the Raptors get the pre-game introduction song right. Drake’s “Headlines” may not be the biggest pump-up song out there, but it’s a big, recognizable track from the hottest Canadian/Torontonian music act right now. I don’t know if you caught it, but there was a noticeable buzz in the crowd as soon as the first few beats of “Headlines” played. I’ve never heard that for a Raptors’ pre-game song before. Even if you don’t like Drake, I assure you, this choice was a lot better than some of the crap they’ve come up with in the past.

3- The Pacers are the better basketball team and probably deserved to win this game anyway (and in terms of the 2012 Draft, every loss counts for Toronto), but wow, was the officiating slanted in this one? In recent seasons, the Raptors have been on the wrong end of miscalled games more often than not, but in a lot of those games, I faulted the Raps for not being aggressive and settling. On Wednesday night, the Raptors were trying to attack the basket, were getting mugged on the way there, and were rarely awarded with free throws. The Pacers would attack the basket, be gently brushed, and get the benefit of the ref’s whistle.

Could the more veteran Pacers just be smarter about how and when they use their hands and bodies on defence? I suppose, but it was a physical game that could have seen whistles blown equally on nearly every trip down the floor (and it seemed like that was the case in the first five minutes or so), and yet the Raptors end up with 25 personal fouls to the Pacers’ 16.

4- Andrea Bargnani’s butter fingers. For the most part, I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Bargnani in two games. He hasn’t forced too much offensively, he’s shown some great court vision with his passes, he’s been better defensively and he’s making a much more consistent effort to chase down and follow rebounds. It may not look like it by checking the boxscore (Bargnani has just 10 total rebounds in two games), but watching him makes it easy to see the difference. Unfortunately, Andrea seems to be suffering from a severe case of butter-fingers right now. I counted three times on Wednesday night that Bargnani got into good position and had the rebound in his hands, only to let the ball slip away. I saw this happen a couple of times in the Cavs game on Monday as well. It may not sound like much, but it’s the difference between averaging five rebounds through two games and perhaps seven or eight rebounds.

Am I defending Bargnani’s rebounding or saying he never gets out-muscled for the ball? Absolutely not. I’m just saying his low rebounding total seems to be more a case of butter-fingers right now than a lack of effort or will. I do think letting the ball slip out of your hands like that is a lapse in concentration though, and Andrea has to be better than that.

5- I’ve been disappointed with DeMar DeRozan’s start to games so far, but I’ve been equally impressed with his finishes. On Monday night, DeRozan started very slow offensively, only to hit a couple of clutch shots down the stretch to seal a road win. On Wednesday night, DeMar couldn’t hit a soccer net in the first half, but responded with 16 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Raptors’ comeback bid and finish with 22 points overall, which led the team.

What I really like, and a sign that DeMar has matured as a player from year two to year three, is that even though his shot has been AWOL early in these two games, he hasn’t tried to do too much offensively or force anything in a feeble attempt to erase his slow starts. He’s gone about things the right way. Keep playing your game, keep putting the effort in on other facets of the game and stay patient on offence. Wait for your opportunity late in the game, and make it happen. That’s what DeMar has done.

He’s come out with some poor shooting to start both games, and yet he’s still put up 37 points while going 16-of-29 from the field.

6- I’ll end on a positive note. Bar none, that was the most complete defensive performance I’ve personally seen live from the Raptors in at least seven years. If you wanted to see the “Casey-effect” in action before being convinced, seeing the home opener at the ACC probably made you a believer. Using mostly the same players that acted as defensive pylons for the majority of last season, Dwane Casey looks to have turned water into wine. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Nearly every time I thought a Pacer had too much space as he was about to receive a pass, a Raptor swooped in and closed that gap instantly. It’s hard to describe in words, but the word I keep coming back to is “smothering.”

Sure, it’s still a work in progress and I still saw too many open three-pointers for my liking, but if you saw this team live at all last season and then sat in for the home opener on Wednesday, you can’t tell me you weren’t impressed with their defensive turnaround.

The Raptors won over the sold out opening night crowd at the ACC with good old fashioned defence and hard work. If they continue to bring that effort throughout the season, the fans in Toronto will embrace them, regardless of whether they’re playing meaningful games or playing to decide lottery position.

Raptors Player of the Game: Andrea Bargnani – 32 Min, 21 Pts, 9-17 FG, 1-3 3Pt, 2-5 FT, 4 Reb, 5 Ast, 1 Stl, 2 Blk

Pacers Player of the Game: Danny Granger – 31 Min, 21 Pts, 8-19 FG, 2-5 3Pt, 3-3 FT, 8 Reb, 1 Ast, 3 Stl, 1 Blk, 4 TO

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