TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors bid farewell to 2021 with a victory. It came in a near-empty arena that was almost befitting the end of another bizarre sports year in the COVID-19 era.
Now, they hope they've left their virus troubles behind them.
Fred VanVleet had 31 points and nine assists in his first game back from COVID-19 protocols, while Pascal Siakam had 25 points and tied a career high with 19 rebounds to lift the Raptors to a 116-108 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.
On what would normally be a festive New Year's Eve affair, the Raptors played in a virtually spectator-free Scotiabank Arena due to Ontario's tightened COVID-19 restrictions.
But it's nothing the Raptors aren't used to.
"It was more normal than not, to be honest with you," VanVleet said. "I would say we probably played just as much if not more fanless basketball than we have in packed stadiums, so it is what it is.
"Fans or no fans, we've got to go out there and play basketball and do the best we can."
OG Anunoby added 26 points for Toronto (15-17).
Marcus Morris had 20 points to top the Clippers (18-18), who were missing head coach Tyronn Lue - he became the 10th head coach to enter COVID-19 protocols earlier Friday.
Chris Boucher and Svi Mykhailiuk are the only Raptors who've avoided COVID protocols. With the team nearly back at full strength, the players were optimistic.
"It's been a bit, right?" coach Nick Nurse said on the roller-coaster last couple of weeks.
The Raptors raced out to a 15-point lead, but a couple of sloppy quarters on the defensive end and poor three-point shooting saw them trailing 87-82 to start the fourth.
They regained the lead early in the quarter with a 12-4 run punctuated by a dunk and three-pointer by Anunoby.
Siakam's dunk with 1:34 to play had Toronto up 109-105, Terance Mann connected from long distance to make it a one-point game, then VanVleet connected on back-to-back three-pointers to put the game out of reach with 24 seconds left.
Nurse was happy to escape with a win.
"Are you excited about the way the team played tonight? Not especially," Nurse said. "But we made a step towards the re-gather ... accepting that it's not just going to be oh, we got our guys back, there's the wand you wave and we're going to be back to mid-season form we were in three weeks ago."
Siakam said "it felt good" to have the majority of the roster back playing. Rookie Scottie Barnes was sidelined with knee tendinitis.
"We missed those guys out there," Siakam said. "It felt good tonight to have most of us out there and just see what we could do."
With no fans in attendance except for a few dozen family members, the game was reminiscent of the 2020 NBA bubble in Florida.
The Ontario government announced Thursday that it was slashing crowd capacity due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in the province. The province trimmed the 50-per cent limit that went into effect two games earlier to a maximum of 1,000 people.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., went one further, announcing they would sell no tickets for Raptors or Maple Leafs games for three weeks beginning Friday.
The gaping 19,800-seat arena made for an almost fitting backdrop to send off the year.
Asked if playing in front of no fans would be weird, Brian Shaw - who filled in for Lue - said "I don't think anything is weird anymore."
The national anthems were broadcast via video, and canned applause played throughout the game. There was a video tribute for former Raptor Serge Ibaka that was met with silence. Glittery "Happy New Year!" messages flashed on the Jumbotron. The fourth quarter began with a prompt for fans to "MAKE SOME NOISE!"
The Raptors at least are accustomed to curve balls. Border restrictions and capacity limits in Toronto last season forced them to call Tampa, Fla., home, where they played many games in front of a smattering of fans.
"We've had to get ready to play in a lot of different venues," Nurse said before the game. "The main thing to keep in mind or in the forefront is that we're getting to go out there and play.
"I mean, listen, you think about it ... get disappointed when you hear the news come out, probably all wish it wasn't this way but it is and you've just got to get on with it."
The Raptors got off to a great start but the Clippers went on a 16-4 run that straddled the first and second quarters, closing to within 32-29 to end the first, and taking the lead early in the second.
Poor defence and terrible three-point shooting saw Toronto outscored 33-24 in the second quarter and L.A. went into halftime up 62-56.
VanVleet had 11 points in the third, including a running layup that tied the game with 3:41 left in the quarter.
The Raptors still have Isaac Bonga, plus hardship signees D.J. Wilson, Daniel Oturu and Juwan Morgan in protocols. The Clippers have four players sidelined because of protocols, including centre Ivica Zubac, who entered protocols on Thursday.
The NBA had about 120 players in health and safety protocols on Friday.
Some 97 per cent of NBA players are double vaccinated and at least two-thirds of players have received boosters.
The Raptors host New York on Sunday and San Antonio on Tuesday to cap their four-game homestand.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 31, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press