After sharing the summer’s biggest trade, it’s finally time. The Raptors and Spurs meet up for the first of two matchups tonight at the AT&T Center, an arena that hasn’t been kind to Toronto — they’ve lost their last nine games there — and likely won’t be to their superstar player.
Yes, Thursday is the long-awaited return of Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio. After a season of disconnected communication circling Leonard’s shoulder injury, one that was mostly lost as he separated himself from the team, it’s unlikely Kawhi will find any friendly faces among those he visits tonight — least of which his old head coach in Gregg Popovich.
Popovich has taken quite a few digs at Kawhi, both before and after the trade that sent him and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a pick. These include pointing out that Kawhi “wasn’t a leader or anything”, crediting Patty Mills with that role.
For his part, Leonard seems ready to prove his former coach wrong. He’s coming off a career-high 45 points against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, just his third career 40-point game in the regular season and playoffs. He’s also averaging 30.8 points and shooting 51.9% over the last 14 games.
What I’m saying is: all signs point to Kawhi being extremely up for this matchup.
On the other side of the trade coin, the Raptors get to see old friends in DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, the latter of whom is likely to start with Rudy Gay doubtful to go with a wrist injury. While this matchup won’t be as emotionally impactful for those two as February 22 in Toronto, it’ll still be fascinating to see DeRozan play for an opposing team, in opposing colours.
Also up in the air is whether DeRozan will get to play his buddy Kyle Lowry. While Lowry is TBD and the team is hopeful for his return, it’s too early to read the tight-lipped Raptors organization. Best to follow that storyline as the day goes on.
Here’s the details, then we’ll get to what you should watch for beyond the enticing Kawhi-Pop beef.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet One (TNT in U.S.), 8 PM ET
Toronto - Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
San Antonio - Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, LaMarcus Aldridge
Toronto - Kyle Lowry (questionable - back), Jonas Valanciunas (out - thumb)
San Antonio - Rudy Gay (doubtful - wrist), Dejounte Murray (out - knee)
After nine years of watching a guy play, you get to know his strengths and weaknesses. For the Raptors, don’t be surprised to see a lot of offensive possessions involve off-ball cuts and pick and rolls attacking DeMar DeRozan’s defence.
The Spurs have improved on defence since the insertion of Derrick White into their starting lineup (necessitated by the ACL injury to Dejounte Murray). In the last ten games, they’ve been a top five defence in the NBA, marking a 103.0 defensive rating. DeRozan has been a part of this — he’s been energetic on ball and his “give a shit” level is very high. Beside him, White is a good-sized body who gets the primary guard assignment on most nights (read: he will be guarding Kawhi), which allows DeRozan to shy toward the guard with less usage.
Reading this, the Raptors have been continually excellent at attacking mismatches against good teams. The best example of this was against the Warriors, when Nick Nurse pulled the “Danny Green post-up” out of the hat when Steve Kerr put Steph Curry on Green. While DeRozan is probably strong enough to guard against this, he’s particularly susceptible in his off-ball defence — expect the Raptors strategy to include a lot of weak side cuts and motion.
Run Your Stuff
We all know the Spurs are a well-oiled machine, regardless of the roster they roll out. Even through injuries and a lack of shooting, Popovich has his team at 21-17 and in a playoff spot. They also have the benefit of two full days rest after beating the Celtics on New Year’s Eve.
The stats bear this out too. The Spurs are best in the league in turnover percentage, coughing up the ball on just 12.2% of their possessions. The Raptors are usually a team that thrives off this, though, scoring an 11th-best 17.5 points off turnovers this season. Take the Chicago game last week as an example: even shooting a horrid percentage, they were able to eke out a win by winning the turnover battle against a young team.
There’ll be less easy paths to success against San Antonio. That means running solid offence and relying on your improvisers. Without their best screener in Jonas Valanciunas and their best team player in Kyle Lowry (maybe!), the last few Raptors games have been more focused on Kawhi Leonard isolating and Pascal Siakam ball-handling. Against the Spurs, they’ll need more of that.
It’d also be nice for another solid supporting bench performance. The last few games, that’s been provided by Norman Powell, though Delon Wright showed signs against Utah, scoring eight points.
A concerning trend with Valanciunas out is how hard the Raptors are working Serge Ibaka. He’s embraced the centre role, but an increase in minutes has coincided with some tough matchups at the five spot. That includes tonight, as he’ll be faced with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau “All Elbows” Gasol.
This means I’ll be watching Greg Monroe’s minutes closely. Against Utah, we basically saw the best we can expect from Moose. Sure, he gives back some points on defence and isn’t the quickest in pick and roll reaction. When he can score a few baskets and keep possessions alive on the other end, though, it tends to balance out.
It’ll probably be a similar rotation tonight in San Antonio, which means limited to no time for Chris Boucher, so treading water with Monroe on the floor is very important.