Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oh, Canada!

The second half of the NBA season got underway Tuesday night, as the  21-32 Toronto Raptors paid a visit to the nation's capital to take on the 15-36 Washington Wizards. The Raptors had been highly improved since acquiring star forward Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies in a three-team trade, and were riding a four game winning streak going into the all-star break.

It was an eventful all-star weekend for the Raptors organization. Rookie guard Terrence Ross had won the NBA slam dunk competition, becoming the first Raptor to win the title since Vince Carter in 2000. On his second to last dunk, Ross even paid tribute to "Vincanity" by donning his number 15 Toronto jersey, the same one that was worn by Carter in the slam dunk finale 13 years ago.

Raptors rookie forward Quincy Acy has been used sparingly by coach Dwane Casey, averaging just 2.8 points and 7.8 minutes in 19 games played.
Raptors center Aaron Gray stretches his back during pregame warmups
Raptors swing-man Alan Anderson played for 10 professional basketball teams in 8 different leagues, including the NBA, before joining Toronto in 2012.
Raptors center Amir Johnson has made a niche for himself in Toronto, after being selected straight out of Westchester high school in Los Angeles, 56th overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 2005 NBA draft.
Johnson has averaged 9.7 points in 27.2 minutes per game in 2012-13.
Born in Washington, D.C., John Lucas III played for 9 different professional basketball teams before joining the Raptors in 2012. He is also the son of former NBA player and coach John Lucas II, who played for University of Maryland from 1972-76, and then for the Washington Bullets from 1981-83.
A native of Rome, Italy, forward Andrea Bargnani was the 1st overall pick by the Raptors in 2006, but has been the subject of recent trade speculation leading up to Thursday's 3:00 P.M. deadline.
The Raptors shelled out the big bucks for swing-man Landry Fields, signing him to a 3-year deal worth $20 million this past off-season. So far, Fields is averaging just 5 points and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes per game.
The Wizards had some representatives in the all-star festivities, as well. Bradley Beal competed in the Rising Stars Challenge, scoring 12 points for the victorious Team Chuck, the rookie and sophomore squad managed by Charles Barkley. Wizards assistant coach, and former Rocket, Sam Cassell represented the Houston team in the NBA Shooting Stars competition.

It was a cold and rainy February day in D.C. The Verizon Center was about as empty tonight as I had ever seen it. The attendance was recorded as being almost 14,000, but I just couldn't believe there were that many people. I estimated there must have been about half that number. Nevertheless, there were enough fans to take well over 300 photos on the night.

There was a sizable contingent of Lithuanian fans in attendance, and I took a multitude of pictures of the conglomeration, which was decked out in green, yellow, and red jerseys. There are two Lithuanians who play for the Raptors. One is Linas Kleiza, a swing-man, and three-point specialist, who graduated from Montrose Christian School in Rockville, MD. The other is Jonas Valanciunas, a promising 6'11" center who had last played for Lietuvos Rytas, a professional team in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Toronto selected "Big V" 5th overall in the 2011 draft, but Valanciunas didn't begin his NBA career until this season. So far, the big fella is averaging 7.3 points in 21.5 minutes per game in his rookie campaign in Toronto.

Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, a native of Lithuania, poses with a countryman before the game
With the arena only about a quarter full, I could pretty much roam free throughout the building. I would dart in and out of sections during the game, and take pictures of fans in remote corners of the upper levels, stopping every now and then to watch some of the game. Sometimes, I would draw a familiarly menacing stare from a tired usher, but I didn't think it was necessary to abide by any rules on a night when the arena was so bare.

There was an ambiance in the Verizon Center that seemed almost morose. The game had started with a moment of silence, honoring late Lakers' owner Jerry Buss, who passed away on Monday at the age of 80. The already sobered crowd never seemed to awake from it's slumber. A couple of idiots booed the performance of the Canadian national anthem.

The energy was further drained from the arena by a scoreboard malfunction. Instead of appearing on the jumbo-tron, the score was posted on an electronic scoreboard that rested against the press table. The video panel also carried the score in the lower right hand corner of the screen, but the shot clock had failed, as well, forcing the P.A. announcer to clarify when there were 10 seconds left to get a shot off on every possession.

Wizards rookie guard Bradley Beal past Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan
Wizards guard John Wall tries to steal the ball from Raptors guard Kyle Lowry
Wall was successful in knocking the ball loose, but was whistled for a reach-in foul by referee Courtney Kirkland.
Toronto led almost the whole way through, and held on for a comfortable 96-88 victory, their 5th straight, behind considerable contributions from both Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan, who scored 24 points a piece.

The Wizards were led by Bradley Beal with 25 points, and Martell Webster, who tallied 16 points and 8 rebounds in defeat.

After an off-day on Wednesday, Washington will host Denver on Friday night at the Verizon Center