Air Canada Centre was abuzz with Friday evening as fans anticipated the arrival of the newest Raptor, Rudy Gay.
Gay did not start the game, but when he stepped on the floor, he did not disappoint.
By the time the night was over, Gay had led the team in points with 20, while DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson poured in 19 apiece for a 98-73 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
It seemed as though the Raptors could do no wrong. Shot after shot fell and with each basket, the crowd exploded with excitement. Simply by having Gay on the floor, both the players and the fans seemed to be charged with a level of energy that hasn't been seen at the ACC all season.
Gay's presence on the floor was felt in other ways as well. One of the biggest effects he had was on the offensive end, drawing extra attention from the defense and making things easier for DeRozan.
Lately, as opposing team's defenses have keyed in on DeRozan, he has struggled to anchor the Raptor offense. If Friday night is any indication, both DeRozan and Kyle Lowry should have much more room to operate offensively next to Gay.
"He frees up DeMar [DeRozan], Kyle [Lowry] and everyone else so they can get their shot," Dwane Casey said. "Teams cannot just concentrate on DeMar now which will open things up for him."
Casey wasn't the only person impressed with Gay in his debut.
"You saw it tonight [with] no practices. A player of his caliber can't do anything but help us." DeRozan said.
For Gay, it was simply good for him to get out on the court, focus on the game and get away from everything else.
"It was just good to get a win," Gay said. "There are so many other things going on. It's the first time I've had to go through it. It just felt good to play basketball."
Gay said this about 17 hours after he flew out of Memphis in order to make it to Toronto in time for his introductory press conference and physical.
Gay was introduced to a resounding round of applause provided by a surprisingly large crowd of MLSE employees.
"To start over in an organization where they reached out and tried to get me, I feel like I've been drafted again." Gay said during the press conference.
Gay seemed motivated by the move and ready to not only make an impact with the Raptors, but to lead them going forward.
"If you look back and see at the end of the games, I guard the best player. I take that challenge," Gay said. "None of that really matters to me --what people say. I know at the end of the day, I want to win. Whatever it takes, whether it's getting a stop, hitting the last shot, I'll be the person to do it."
He also expressed his frustrations with the way the season has gone, admitting that trade rumors have affected his game.
"I'd like to sit here and say no, it didn't wear on me, but of course it does," Gay said. "It's my livelihood, this is basketball -- it's what I do for a living. Professionally, I tried to go out there and be the best professional I could be, but it is a lot of relief that comes from being here, talking to BC, talking to coach Casey, them reassuring me that I'm going to be comfortable here. It means a lot to me."
After saying all the right things, Gay started things off on the right foot. He backed up his words against the Clippers, showing not only his talent but also his motivation to lead this team. In his first game in a Raptors uniform, he played with fire.
If he can continue to play with that fire and if the right moves are made around him, perhaps he really can be the centerpiece of a successful team in Toronto.
The fans in the arena on Friday sure sounded starved for one.
Other notable quotes from yesterday's press conference:
Gay on his relationship with Kyle Lowry:
I played him junior year in high school. He's from Philly, I'm from Maryland, it's like an hour-and-a-half away ... I played him, actually before that, 8th grade, in AAU. I was looking at him like: ‘Man, this kid, he is fast.' And he was looking at me like: ‘This kid is tall.'
AAU circuit, playing in the same conference in college, getting drafted to the same team, it's like, whenever you go into a situation you're looking for that one familiar face and that's always been Kyle. So, he's my best friend by default.
On being a franchise player:
Yeah. I think more than anything a franchise person has to understand that it's a team game. I'm not coming here just to score a lot of points. I'm coming here to make my team better. We have a lot of great [players] I'm not coming here to lessen anybody's role or anything. I'm coming here to make this team better. Some nights that might be scoring points, some nights that might be assisting and some nights it might be rebounding. As long as those W's keep adding up.
On being a leader:
It's just, what it takes to be a good leader, I think its not just showing on the court. Off the court. Staying in front of the team and more than anything accepting when you're wrong. I think good leaders accept when they're wrong and listen to their teammates and take constructive criticism. I can take it as well as I can dish it out. I think that's what makes a good leader.
On playing in a different system:
Definitely. I think I can do it here. I think I have a lot more to give. Being in a system in Memphis, I wouldn't say it limits me, because we won a lot of games and that's what it's about, I think I definitely played into a system, a different system..