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Will empty Amalie Arena make Raptors feel more at home?

In the games Toronto’s NBA team has played in Tampa, most fans attended to cheer for the opponent.
Fans attend the regular-season opener between the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans in December at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Fans attend the regular-season opener between the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans in December at Amalie Arena in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 13

TAMPA — The Raptors will return to Amalie Arena in Tampa following a four-game, west coast road trip to a home game without fans for the first time this season.

After playing four games at Amalie in front of a limited capacity of 3,800 fans, Vinik Sports Group, which owns the Lightning and manages the arena, announced Friday that there will be no fans at Lightning or Raptors games through at least Feb. 5 because of the local spike in coronavirus cases.

While playing their home games 1,300 miles away from Toronto, the Raptors have felt like visitors in their temporary home in more ways than one. In all four of their games at Amalie — whether it was against the Miami Heat, New Orleans Hornets, New York Knicks or Boston Celtics — the majority of fans were there to root for the opposing team.

The most glaring instance was the Raptors’ most recent home game against the Celtics, a 126-114 loss in which green jerseys filled the stands and fans spent most of the fourth quarter loudly chanting, “We want Tacko,” urging Celtics coach Brad Stevens to insert seldom-used former UCF star Tacko Fall for the final minutes of a one-sided game.

“It’s not great that you’ve got a home game and you obviously can see the jerseys and hear the crowd cheer for the opponent and you’re supposed to be at home,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “No excuses from us. We’ve just got to worry about what’s happening on the floor and take care of business.”

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) pacts to a call in the first quarter against the Miami Heat during a preseason NBA basketball game at Amalie Arena  in Tampa on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) pacts to a call in the first quarter against the Miami Heat during a preseason NBA basketball game at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

So, could playing in front of no fans at home games actually make the Raptors feel more comfortable? They won just one of their four games at Amalie in front of fans and enter Wednesday night’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets with a 2-8 record, tied with the Detroit Pistons for worst in the NBA.

Amalie Arena was one of the few venues that allowed fans to open the season, and the Raptors have become accustomed to playing in empty arenas on the road, though each is different. Nurse said Wednesday that music was loud at the Warriors’ new arena, the Chase Center, but it was eerily quiet the next night when the Raptors played in Portland against the Trail Blazers.

How much have the Raptors felt like visitors in Tampa?

Raptors guard Fred VanVleet acknowledged Wednesday that during the team’s preseason game against the Heat at Amalie Arena, he yelled, “Shut up and put on your mask,” to a fan that was heckling him. Heat forward Duncan Robinson told the story on “The Long Shot” podcast on Tuesday.

“That was just a heat-of-the-moment thing in the game,” VanVleet said. “I’ve got to get used to having fans again. Well, I don’t have to use it now, but at that time it was taking a little getting used to having people scream at you again.”

VanVleet said he wasn’t too surprised to see the majority of the Tampa crowd cheering for the Raptors’ opponents.

“I think we expected it,” he said. “I don’t think many Toronto fans live in Tampa, and if they do live here, they weren’t coming to the game. The ones that were there, we appreciate them. The fans that came to them to watch the other team, we know what it is, we’re used to it.

“It was just one of those things where you’re reminded of your placement and where things are and, if anything, that gives us a little more juice, that extra chip on your shoulder,” VanVleet added. “I think it was probably weirder for the other team. And it’s like that with us in regular times. We go to certain cities, Toronto fans travel really well, so you’ve got to be able to take it on both sides.”

Nurse has played in a hostile home environment before. When he played internationally in London, all the London-based Lithuanians would take over the arena when his team would face a team from Lithuania.

“It would be sold out,” Nurse said. “I’ve been through it before. … We haven’t played well at home. We’re thrown in a lot of situations, and you’ve just got to adapt to them as quickly as you can and get to playing. Hopefully, we’ll play a little better here in Tampa.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.