TAMPA — The atmosphere in Amalie Arena on Friday night — with a few thousand fans scattered around the seating bowl for the facility’s first live sporting event since March — couldn’t compare to the raucous crowds the Raptors are used to playing in front of at home in Toronto.
But just that fans were allowed was a step forward.
An announced crowd of 2,322, spread out for social distancing purposes, witnessed the first NBA game held in Tampa in nearly two decades as the Raptors — calling the bay area home for at least the first half of the season — dropped their final preseason tuneup to the Heat 117-105.
“It’s always great to be able to have fans in front of us,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who led all scorers with 25 points. “The atmosphere was really cool. They were bringing some buzz in there.
“There were actually more people up top than it seemed to be, but just getting an opportunity to get fans in the building, it gets us kind of as normalized as possible.”
The NBA was the first North America pro league to shut down because of the coronavirus, stopping play March 11 after the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive. When the league resumed play in the summer, it did so in a fan-less bubble at Walt Disney World.
So before Friday, the Raptors hadn’t played a game in front of fans since late February. Their first two preseason games were played with no fans in Charlotte. Several teams will open the season without fans starting next week.
“But also being safe is a big thing, right?” Lowry said. “You want to try to get our fans back involved in but do it in a safe way. … It felt good to be in front of fans and us being here and knowing we’re going to have 17 home games here, it’s going to be cool to have fans here.”
With Canadian coronavirus travel restrictions preventing the Raptors from playing in Toronto, they decided to relocate to Tampa. In the wake of the NHL season shutdown March 12 and its postseason played in Canada, and with its next season not started yet, Amalie Arena held a live sporting event Friday for the first time in 288 days.
“We were pleased to be able to bring live events back to Amalie Arena tonight, and we thank the Toronto Raptors for bringing the NBA to Tampa Bay,” Amalie Arena spokesman Bill Wickett said.
The Raptors have brought many of their home arena trappings with them, including the court; their giant mask-wearing red dinosaur mascot, Raptor; and a DJ that gave the arena a clubby vibe. Of course, a lot of Drake was played.
The last time Amalie Arena had hosted an NBA game was 2002, when the Heat and Pistons played a preseason game there. In 2010, a scheduled exhibition game between the Magic and Heat was canceled because of concerns over a slick playing surface. In 2000, a Magic- Pistons preseason game drew 17,296 fans.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Friday’s scattered crowd reminded him a little of his days coaching developmental games in cities like Des Moines, Iowa, and Edinburg, Texas, “with fans splattered across the lower bowl like that.”
“But it seemed like there were some people out there having some fun,” he said. “It really, really did. I think it’s nice to see. That’s the main thing, so people can get out and enjoy themselves.”
On the court, the Raptors played far from their best game. They shot 38 percent and heaved 59 3-point attempts. They almost seemed to be feeling out their new digs.
The Raptors, who have been in Tampa for just 2½ weeks, have gone through several firsts: a new city, a new training camp site at Saint Leo University, a new training facility built out of a ballroom at the Marriott hotel near the arena. Playing their first game at Amalie Arena checked off another one.
“I think this was a big step,” Nurse said. “I think getting over here and practicing a little bit and playing this game was one of the final pieces that we had to get through one time. So yeah, I think we’re getting there. I think we need to, on a night like (Friday), probably put a little better performance together. And I think that’ll come from getting a little more settled in your own arena.”
Friday offered a valuable opportunity to get used to their new surroundings, whether it’s the depth perception, the crowd, the locker room or just finding their way around an unfamiliar building.
“It shouldn’t affect your play that much,” Nurse said. “You walk out in the hallway, you don’t know which way the locker room is and you may have to ask somebody two or three times, but you do want to get comfortable in here and get the rhythm of the building and the rims and just the sights and sounds.”
The Raptors play their first of 17 currently scheduled regular-season games at Amalie Arena on Wednesday with their season opener against the Pelicans.
“I think it’s going to be a smooth transition,” Lowry said. “I think the city of Tampa has been unbelievable, too, as well, and it’s going to be a real good time for us.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.