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Ibaka scores 18 points, Raptors beat Rockets in first game in over four months

When Toronto sharpshooter Matt Thomas drilled a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter Friday, big man Serge Ibaka gleefully celebrated the basket sitting astride a sandwich-style video board on the sidelines.

When Toronto sharpshooter Matt Thomas drilled a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter Friday, big man Serge Ibaka gleefully celebrated the basket sitting astride a sandwich-style video board on the sidelines.

His boisterous celebration said everything about the night: it was good to be back.

More than four months after COVID-19 shut down the NBA, the Raptors took up where they left off — with a victory.

Ibaka scored 18 points to lead the defending NBA champions to a 94-83 win over the Houston Rockets on Friday in their first scrimmage at Walt Disney World.

Rookie Terence Davis summed up what the whole team was feeling after such an uncertain and unprecedented layoff.

"Man, it felt really good man," said Davis, who had 15 points on the night. "It was great to get up and down. I know the guys felt the same way. It just felt really good to continue doing what you love to do. Tonight we had a chance to do that and it wouldn't be possible without the great help of the organization and the NBA coming together.

"It's an unbelievable job they have done so shout out to the NBA." 

Pascal Siakam had 13 points, Norm Powell finished with 12, and Kyle Lowry chipped in with 11, including a buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the first half.

James Harden led Houston with 24 points, while Danuel House Jr., had 18 and Russell Westbrook finished with 10.

The Raptors hadn't played a game in 138 days, a 101-92 victory in Utah that came two days before the NBA shut down March 11 due to COVID-19. When the Raptors scattered for their respective homes to isolate, they were second in the Eastern Conference at 46-18, and had just clinched a playoff spot in a promising season that saw them win a franchise-record 15 games in a row.

On Friday night, in one of the three courts in the NBA's Disney "bubble," the Raptors looked ready to resume their title defence, gathering strength as the game went on.

"A step or two slow here or there mixed in with some really good play," said coach Nick Nurse, who got the exhibition win on his 53rd birthday. "I thought there was some good energy at times, great ball movement, etc. Had some good battling, I don't think the intensity of the game was super high but it was really good to get out there and see where we were."

Toronto trailed 75-74 to start a fourth quarter that was just 10 minutes rather than the regulation 12 to help players adjust after the four-month layoff.

A Powell three-pointer capped a 7-0 Raptors run that put Toronto up by six with 7:17 to play.

Thomas's three with just under three minutes to play gave the Raptors a 15-point lead, and was part of a 41-point performance by Toronto's bench.

"There's a real competitiveness there with those (second-unit) guys and they do a good job," Nurse said. "They work and do the principles of defence and challenge shots and it helps them on offence."

Lowry was in regular-season form, taking charges and playing hard in his 19 minutes of action.

"He's a guy, no matter the circumstance, he kind of knows only one way to play," Nurse said of his point guard. "There's no fans here, he's gonna play. In typical Kyle kind of fashion, he was only going to play the first half tonight, but he gets to halftime and wants to play some more and again, just had to rein him in a little bit.

"He gets his motor going he loves to play, he loves to play and I don't really worry about his demeanour."

The Raptors will have two more scrimmages — Sunday versus Portland and Tuesday against Phoenix — to continue to regain their game legs before they open the eight-game seeding round on Aug. 1 versus the Los Angeles Lakers.

Their first action in the coronavirus era was a stark reminder of how much the world has changed in less than five months. The stats crew was protected behind a wall of plexiglass. Coaches and players on the bench were spaced out over three rows. They wore masks. The stands were empty. The squeak of sneakers and the hollering of teammates provided the soundtrack.

Nurse said there were moments when he called out plays and was surprised by how his voice carried in the relatively quiet arena.

The NBA is using the restart to amplify messages of racial and social injustice. "Black Lives Matter" was written in bold black letters across the court Friday. Nurse wore Black Lives Matter wristbands. The coach wore a shirt that said "Vote" for his pre-game Zoom conference with reporters.

Once the seeding-round begins, players have the choice to wear messages rather than their names on the backs of their jerseys.

Houston took an early 12-point lead Friday and led 29-22 to start the second.

Powell's layup midway through the second capped an 8-0 run to put Toronto ahead. Lowry banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the teams into the halftime break tied at 49-49.

Marc Gasol, who missed 28 of the Raptors' 64 games this season with a hamstring injury, sat out the game.

The Rockets arrived in Florida without Harden and Westbrook. Harden arrived five days after his teammates citing family issues, while Westbrook had tested positive for the coronavirus and checked into Disney World earlier this week.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 24, 2020.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press