Canada’s team returns to Montreal

The doors to the Bell Centre may remain locked for NHL players, but they were pried open for players and fans of a different sport on Friday night. NBA basketball returned to Montreal for the second time in three years as the Toronto Raptors “hosted” the New York Knicks in a preseason game as part of the NBA’s Canada Series. The series also includes a game in Winnipeg between Detroit and Minnesota. A sell-out crowd lived up to its rowdy reputation, and the players didn’t disappoint. The Raptors defeated the Knicks 107-88.

Toronto entered the contest with a 3-1 exhibition record, while the Knicks were 2-0. However, the Atlantic division rivalry lacked much of its usual punch as the game was just another opportunity for head coaches Dwayne Casey and Mike Woodson to get to know their teams, and plan for the regular season. The neutral location of the game was significant to the Raptors organization, which is currently trying to broaden its fan base across the country.

“I think we need to realize that we are the Raptors from Toronto, but we have the whole country behind us,” Jose Calderon, the Raptors’ longest-tenured player, noted after the game. “That’s the difference between us and the other teams in the league … it’s good for the NBA and for Canada.”

Jamaal Magloire, a 34 year-old centre from Toronto, agreed with Calderon. He hopes that the NBA makes trips to Montreal and other Canadian cities every season.

Raptors Head Coach Dwayne Casey saw the trip as a good opportunity for the team’s young players—Toronto has an average age of almost 25—to be exposed to a different environment.

“It should be a cultural experience,” Casey said of playing exhibition games in cities without NBA teams. “It’s a situation where there’s not a lot of time for guys to go out in the day. But I know the guys understand the city [and] they know it’s a very historical city. We have young guys and every experience is probably a new experience for our guys.”

The Knicks, on the other hand, are well-travelled, but gave Montreal favourable reviews.

“It is beautiful,” Knicks point guard Jason Kidd said. “I have family here and they’ve been asking me to come up, but this is my first time. I’ll be back; it’s a beautiful city.”

Carmelo Anthony, who dropped 24 points in 34 minutes, felt the same.  He spoke of the city’s energy and  complimented Montreal’s fans, who have been starved for professional sports action beyond the CFL’s Alouettes.

“This was big time,” he said. “The fans stayed in it right through the game and were excited about basketball. We had a good time but we wished we could’ve put on a better show for them.”

Montreal’s central location—five hours from Toronto and seven from New York—meant that there was a constant tug-of-war between Toronto fans—the designated home team—and Knicks’ supporters.

“[There were] spurts when you heard the fans cheering for us ,and spurts when you heard them cheering for the home team,” Anthony said. “It was just a good atmosphere.”

The fans likely set their prior allegiances aside and cheered for basketball in general. The building erupted in response to slam dunks by the Knicks’ Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, and the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan.

Raptors fans also got the a chance to see some of the new Raptors players, and a team that is expected to be much-improved after last season’s 23-43 performance, causing them to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year. New faces Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields played significant roles in the win, recording 17 and six points respectively for Toronto. Andrea Bargnani led the way with 20 points.

The Raptors open their season at home on Oct. 31 against the Indiana Pacers. The Knicks will make the long trip across the Brooklyn Bridge to participate in the grand opening of the Barclays Center against the Brooklyn Nets.

Photos by Simon Poitrimolt.

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