The first few minutes of Wednesday night's Toronto Raptors game are going to be something truly special. It's not just the end of a 600 day wait between regular-season home games for the Raptors, but it's a major step forward for Ontario as we begin to heal from the pain of 19 months of this COVID-19 pandemic.
Things are certainly going to be different. In the stands, almost everyone attending the game will have received two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine, something none of us could have imagined when the Raptors walked off the court for their last true home game on that February 28, 2020 evening. The arena will be cashless, tickets will be electronic, and masks will be required whenever people aren't eating or drinking. There will be an uneasiness, I'm sure, as people begin to congregate in mass settings for the first time in ages. But there will be a joy, I'm also sure, as the Raptors run down that tunnel and into the waiting arms of the nearly 20,000 raucous fans.
"You can already feel it in the streets," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. "I always say when there's a home game coming to Toronto you can feel it a couple days early, you just feel a little extra buzz."
The time away from Toronto made everyone realize how much they'd missed the city. Sure, the weather in the winter isn't ideal, but there's something special about being home, surrounded by the familiarity of this city, the OVO Athletic Centre, and Scotiabank Arena.
On the court, things will look very different. Only four players on this year's squad have ever played in a regular-season home game with the Raptors. There's no Kyle Lowry and the days of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol manning the paint seem like a distant memory. In their place, Toronto has pivoted. They've said goodbye to the traditional and hello to innovation. Enter Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Khem Birch, and a cast of 6-foot-8ish wings trying to swarm opposing offenses.
Will it work? Will the Raptors win with this unconventional roster?
“We’ll see. We’ll see. I’m not good at predictions," Fred VanVleet said. “We got a good group. These guys have been working all summer. Obviously the vets added into that coming into training camp. We had a good training camp. I thought we showed signs in preseason, but we won’t really know until [Wednesday] night. We’ll see how we look. I’m sure there will be bumps and bruises along the way. But I think we all feel pretty good about the group that we have.”
Just how good? How special can this core be? Those questions will start being answered tonight.