Coming into the game, the headline was Kawhi Leonard’s return. Coming back to San Antonio for the first time in another team’s uniform, Leonard had the attention of a national TV audience with his Toronto Raptors in tow.
The matchup was one both fanbases looked forward to, with the AT&T Center crowd fired up and ready to boo and call names right from the jump.
Spurs fans chanting “traitor” when Kawhi is at the free throw line pic.twitter.com/ms2Vz46APr— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) January 4, 2019
Unfortunately for Leonard, the narrative quickly shifted to another scorned player.
Right from the outset of Thursday’s game, you could sense that Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan (feels weird to see it, right?) had a demonstrable fire under him. With his team sprinting around him, already up 13-5, DeRozan sent an individual message as a punctuation mark — throwing down a thunderous dunk to put the Spurs up double digits just a couple minutes in.
DeMar took off! #GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/wj31yyIMTh— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 4, 2019
DeRozan was great, no doubt about it. In a 125-107 Spurs win that wasn’t as close as the score suggests, he had 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists — his first career triple-double, notched against the team that traded him away. Earlier this week, DeRozan said that “sometimes, just in life, you don’t get the opportunity to marry the woman that you thought was the woman of your dreams”. He played tonight like he wanted to show Toronto what they were missing.
In the bigger picture, though, this game came down to supporting casts. Leonard was also excellent in his return to the Alamo, scoring 21 points on 13 shots, adding five assists and two steals. The one good takeaway from this game was that the scene wasn’t too big for Kawhi, as it shouldn’t be for a Finals MVP. It was a moment, though, that caught the rest of the Raptors unprepared.
Without Kyle Lowry, the Raptors offence looked hurried and imprecise again for most of the night. Unless it was a possession set up by a freelancing Leonard or Pascal Siakam, there was either too much dribbling or too many missed open looks. Danny Green, in particular, had a painful return to San Antonio — missing all seven of his shots to mark a -26 in 26 minutes. Besides him, Fred VanVleet was 1-for-6 from deep and the team as a whole was just 6-for-30.
While the improvisation of Leonard and Siakam worked against Utah a couple nights ago, it quickly got away from a Spurs team that out-hustled the Raptors on most trips down the floor. Besides DeRozan, they got a dominating inside game from LaMarcus Aldridge, who bullied both Serge Ibaka and Greg Monroe for 23 points on 14 shots. From the perimeter, Bryn Forbes and Derrick White cut hard, worked screens, and got open to make eight threes and score 39 points combined. Even “Other Former Raptor” Rudy Gay was getting in on it, scoring 13 including a couple ferocious transition dunks.
In the opening minute, there were a couple plays that led you to believe the Raptors were ready to make a statement. Kawhi’s first possession was a hard drive to the bucket, scoring and getting fouled. Shortly after, he made a jumper. Toronto was clueless on the defensive end, though, as DeRozan repeatedly got into the paint on penetration and off-ball cuts. His dunk ballooned the lead to 15-5 to force Toronto’s first timeout.
Though Leonard and Siakam — who finished with ten points, seven assists, and six boards — would calm down the offence briefly, San Antonio would make another run to build their lead to 20. After just one quarter, they were up 38-19.
In the second, Toronto looked for answers from their bench. A bright spot again was Norman Powell, who had 14 points, but the Spurs had no interest in guarding OG Anunoby or Delon Wright, forcing claustrophobic lanes. San Antonio’s ability to win 50-50 balls also impacted this stretch of play — on one possession Jakob Poeltl grabbed one of his four offensive rebounds amidst three red jerseys — giving the Spurs a 45-23 lead.
A short run midway through the period cut the lead to 18, but the “break in case of emergency” zone sent out by Nick Nurse didn’t have any sticking results. At the half, San Antonio led 67-51.
They then broke the game open in the third. Against the Raptors starters, San Antonio opened the half on a 9-0 run. Toronto’s offence was impatient again, as VanVleet spent a lot of shot clock dribbling around while others stood to watch. The difference in styles, the static Raptors compared to the cutting and moving Spurs, was frustrating to watch — with the 11-assist difference apparent. Part of it is because the Raptors’ best passer in Lowry is out, yes, but it isn’t the only answer.
Once the Spurs had a 25-point lead, it was more or less toast. Both teams brought their starters back in the fourth, DeRozan was able to get to his triple double, and then garbage time brought a relieving conclusion.
The loss brings the Raptors to 28-12, while the red hot Spurs improve to 22-17 and 16-5 at home. Toronto has now lost ten straight at the AT&T Center.
After the game, Kawhi and Gregg Popovich hugged it out, while DeRozan visited with old teammates on the court. The two teams meet again in Toronto on February 22, when the Raptors will have a chance to show DeRozan what he’s been missing — they failed to do that tonight.