The buzz is real. It's a thing that exists just slightly beyond the usual noise of an arena - the blaring music, the PA announcer, the traffic outside. You walk into the Air Canada Centre and you can hear it: that buzz of excitement.
"Can you feel it?" Amir Johnson chuckled. "Definitely, there's definitely a lot of excitement, a lot of buzz around the city." For the city of Toronto and Raptors fans, its the excitement that comes from anticipation and an expectation of victory. Fans had already started piling into Jurassic Park (officially named Ford Fan Zone, but whatever) hours before tip-off. Inside the arena, sits filled up quickly. The cheer that met Herbie Kuhn's usual "Basketball fans!" announcement felt louder, hungrier.
With a tremendous opening video projected onto the floor of the ACC, and an updated We the North commercial that now features actual Raptors players, the crowd was primed. The Raptors took the floor and, save a late fourth quarter barrage from the Hawks' Kyle Korver and Mike Scott, held the lead from the first minutes. The final score of 109-102 suggests the temerity of the Hawks comeback. It did get frighteningly close in those last few minutes before the Raptors, and the crowd, reasserted control.
Often called the glue that holds the Raptors together, it was Johnson that kept the Raptors moving in the first half. He finished the game with a double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds, to go with four blocks. He also hounded All-Star Paul Millsap into a 4-13 shooting performance.
"Oh yeah, I mean, Amir had a great game," said Greivis Vasquez, before smirking and adding, "It's a contract year, you know." It was Vasquez who hit back-to-back threes and chipped in 12 points off the bench, resuming his role in killer combo guard line-ups opposite Kyle Lowry and now Lou Williams. Regarding Johnson he continued to joke, "I hope he have all double-doubles. I hope he get the max."
Both DeMar DeRozan and Lowry, the ostensible "max" players on the Raptors, struggled from the field last night. They shot a combined 7-27 and hit zero 3s, yet they both also had double-doubles; Lowry with 10 assists to go with his 11 points, and DeRozan with 11 rebounds and 15 points. They both found ways to help the team; Lowry, by not giving the ball away once, and DeRozan by poaching a career-high six steals. It was an unusual box score and it's fair to say the games will not always go this way - double-doubles for everyone, balanced scoring, high energy throughout. But excitement can do that for a team.
"We definitely have to stay level-headed about that, be serious about our scouting reports, take every game seriously," Johnson reminded, before quickly adding, "Have respect for our opponents but at the same time go out there and kick their butt."
Game 1 of 82 down. Job well done so far.