TORONTO, Cananda – It took all of couple of minutes for Rudy Gay to breathe new hope into Toronto Raptors fans.
Two minutes after the team’s newest player checked in to the Raptors’ 98-73 rout of the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, the explosive small forward took flight for a huge alley-oop dunk from DeMar DeRozan. Twenty seconds later, DeRozan found a sprinting Gay again.
Another big dunk, another roar of approval from the capacity crowd of 19,800 at the Air Canada Centre.
“DeMar is a great player, he’s by far the best two-guard I’ve ever played with,” Gay said in the post-game dressing room. “I think for us to be really good, we have to have that kind of interaction together and it’s just the start of it. The more practice, the better we’ll get.”
Gay poured in a game-high 20 points in 33 minutes in his Raptors’ debut, mere hours after he touched down in Toronto.
“You’ve seen it tonight. No practices,” said DeRozan. “A player of his calibre can do nothing but help us.”
Amir Johnson scored 19 points and tied his career-high of 16 rebounds for Toronto (17-30), DeRozan finished with 19 points, John Lucas added 17 points, and Kyle Lowry had eight assists.
“It’s just fun,” DeRozan said. “I’ve known Rudy for a couple of years now. . . It’s just crazy, he knows my game, and I know his game, it’s as simple as that. We’re not going to make it difficult, we know each other’s game.”
Blake Griffin scored 17 points to top the Clippers (34-14), who were playing without all-star guard Chris Paul for the eighth time in 10 games (bruised right kneecap). Jamal Crawford added 14.
Gay’s debut came two days after the trade that sent point guard Jose Calderon to Detroit and forward Ed Davis to Memphis for the explosive small forward that general manager Bryan Colangelo has long coveted.
Red neon signs were posted throughout the arena concourse — “The Toronto Raptors Welcome Rudy Gay.”
Welcome him they did. The crowd was on its feet cheering before he even entered the game, when a highlight video of his time with the Grizzlies was played on the Jumbotron.
Turns out, it was a sneak peak of what was to come.
While he had some shaky moments — an early air ball, a bad turnover — he came virtually as advertised, draining long jumpers and streaking down the court for fast-break baskets in what was easily one of Toronto’s most entertaining game this season.
“He is one of the best in the league at getting his own shot,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “He frees up DeMar, Kyle, and everyone else so they can get their shot. Teams cannot just concentrate on DeMar now which will open him up.”
He looked completely at ease by the time he drained a three-pointer with 4:15 to go in the fourth quarter, slapping his hand on his thigh as Lowry — not only his new teammate but his best friend — shot him a raised-eyebrows “I’m impressed” look.
“Great teammates. They all helped me, they helped me get in the right spots and make sure I didn’t look too bad out there,” Gay said.
Asked if he can remember the last time he’s had several standing ovations in a game, Gay said: “No. Um. . . no.”
The Raptors took a 72-45 lead into the fourth, and continued to pour it on in the final 12 minutes, a three by Lucas giving Toronto a 31-point lead with 3:30 to go, its biggest of the night.
The game ended on a sour note when Jonas Valanciunas was stripped of the ball by Caron Butler with 2.8 seconds on the clock. Valanciunas fouled Butler, who made two pointless free throws.
The game also marked Valanciunas’s return after he missed 18 games with a broken right ring finger. The Lithuanian forward played just 13 minutes, grabbing three rebounds but picking up five fouls.
Gay’s seven points led all scorers in the first quarter as the Raptors took a 22-17 advantage into the second.
The Clippers tied it up at 27-27 midway through the second, but Toronto ended the half with a 19-3 run to take a 46-30 lead into the dressing room at the break.
The Raptors didn’t slow down in the third, Gay’s three-pointer at the buzzer to end the quarter giving the home team a 72-45 lead with a quarter left to play.
“I love Rudy’s game,” Griffin said. “He’s going to be great for the Raptors.”
Gay tugged on his No. 22 Raptors jersey just a few hours after he was introduced to the media at a packed lunchtime news conference — six-and-a-half years late, he joked.
“I like when players call me out occasionally,” Colangelo said, with a grin. “When I first spoke with Rudy the other night after the trade had been consummated, he asked me point blank: ‘Why didn’t you just draft me in the first place?’
“Well, we got you. One way or the other, we got you.”
The University of Connecticut product was taken eighth overall in the 2006 draft — seven spots after the Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani instead.
“It’s just good to be wanted and to start over in an organization where they reached out, to try to get you,” Gay said. “I feel like I’ve been drafted again. I get on (Colangelo) because he didn’t draft me but it’s almost like another draft. Almost.”
The Maryland native was asked about whether he’s ready to be a franchise player coming from a Grizzlies team where he was often the fourth or fifth option on offence.
“I think more than anything, a franchise person needs to understand it’s a team game,” Gay said, as Colangelo and Casey nodded in approval — they clearly liked the answer.
“I’m not coming here to score a lot of points, I’m coming here to make my teammates better, I’m not coming here to lessen anybody’s role, I’m here to make this team better. Some nights it might be scoring a lot of points, some nights it might be assisting, some nights it might be rebounding. As long as those Ws keep happening.”
Gay was averaging 17.2 points as the Grizzlies’ leading scorer — plus 5.9 rebounds per game — in what hasn’t been his strongest season. He’d been the subject of trade rumours for some time as Memphis looked to unload his hefty max contract. The six-foot-eight player is due US$16.5 million this season with $37 million more over the next two years.
Colangelo said perhaps the stress of the trade speculation led to his lower performance level this season.
Gay admitted the uncertainty hasn’t been easy.
“Of course it (wears on you),” he said. “It’s my livelihood, it’s 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 with being here, talking to (Colangelo), and talking to coach Casey and them reassuring me that they’re going to make sure I’m comfortable here, and that means a lot to me.”
Playing alongside Lowry should make for an easier transition to Toronto.
Lowry grew up in Philadelphia, a 90-minute drive from Gay. They first played against each other in Grade 8, and eventually became friends “by default,” Gay said, through all the tournaments they played together.
Lowry was the first person Gay called when the deal went down.
“He said that if you come here, we can do some big things,” Gay said. “It’s going to help so much. Me and Kyle are like brothers. Just as much as I want to see him succeed, he wants to see me succeed, so (it’s good) to have someone in your corner like that.”
The Raptors also acquired Hamed Haddadi from Memphis in the deal, but are expected to waive the centre.