TORONTO - Drake stood from his courtside seat, his arms over his head motioning for the sellout crowd to get on their feet as the final buzzer sounded and his iconic anthem, "Started From The Bottom" blared over the Air Canada Centre loudspeakers.
The Raptors' global ambassador was the guest of honour on Saturday but - as he explained to the hoard of media that assembled in front of him before the game - he did not want the evening to be about him, although the night was in fact titled Drake Night.
It could have been and very nearly turned out to be a sideshow.
The Toronto-born recording artist handed out free shoes while his DJ entertained a captivated audience of 19,800 at halftime. Moments later the buzz that had filled the arena abruptly disappeared as the Raptors came out flat in the third quarter, trailing by as many as 10 to the division-rival Brooklyn Nets, winners of their previous five contests.
In the end, Drake asked for noise and the ACC faithful obliged, saluting the team and its ambassador. The Raptors had earned it, putting on a show of their own and sending their fans home with more than just a black and gold OVO T-shirt.
"I think we just got a spark there," coach Dwane Casey said after the Raptors closed out the game on a 40-18 run to defeat the Nets 96-80. "I thought our guys showed mental toughness and won a slug-out game, which I don't know if we could have won a couple months ago, no less last year. [It's] a testament to our guys' mental growth and mental toughness to win a game like that."
"We stayed patient," said DeMar DeRozan, who led all scorers with 26 to go along with seven rebounds and a team-high five assists. "We knew they were going to make a run, especially in the second half and we understood that. We stayed disciplined, understood we had to get stops, rebound the ball and push it."
DeRozan scored the last seven points of the third and first two of the fourth as the Raptors began to take advantage of a veteran Nets team that had played a double overtime game against the defending champions a night earlier.
Toronto held the visitors without a point for over seven minutes of game time and without a field goal for over nine minutes during a 22-1 run midway through the final frame. Despite their 41 per cent field goal shooting and just 16 assists, the Raptors were able to get out in transition - besting the Nets 13-6 on the break - and take advantage of Kevin Garnett's absence on the boards (the 37-year-old was rested on the second night of back-to-back).
As a team the Raptors grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, five of them from Patrick Patterson, who continued to be a game-changer off Toronto's bench. The Raptors outscored Brooklyn by 40 with Patterson on the floor Saturday. He finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds while fellow reserve John Salmons added 13, connecting on all five of his shots.
The Nets and their rookie head coach Jason Kidd were struggling when they visited Toronto in late November, having lost five in a row before narrowly defeating the Raptors. This time around, they came to town riding a five-game winning streak, which included impressive victories over the Heat, Warriors and Thunder. Without Garnett, Deron Williams (nursing an ankle injury) and Brook Lopez (out for the season after foot surgery) in the lineup on the second night of a grueling back-to-back, Toronto seized another opportunity during this crucial stretch against sub-.500 teams.
The Raptors have now won seven of their past nine contests overall and five of their last six at home, pulling within one-game of third place Atlanta in the Eastern Conference standings.
With some assistance from Drake, the in-arena atmosphere reflected the team's recent success on Saturday and did not go unnoticed by those in the locker room.
"I definitely think (Drake) succeeded," Amir Johnson said. "He got fans hyped, they had some sweet t-shirts in the crowd, everybody's screaming, every play everybody seemed like they were standing up cheering for us and that's what we need from our fans."
"The atmosphere was great, I hope we can continue having that. We've got to keep winning though."
Accompanied by an entourage that included Tim Leiweke and Masai Ujiri before the game, Drake showed off his suit jacket, lined with a retro Vince Carter jersey. He also pitched in during the pre-game introductions, announcing the Raptors starters with his own unique twist.
"Tonight's not really about me, despite the title of the night," he said. "I think it's just more about the momentum in the city, bringing the city together, how well these guys have been playing, honouring this squad that is really finding [itself], finding stability with each other and the revamp of this team."
Given the result, it's safe to say his mission was accomplished.