SAN ANTONIO -- The Toronto Raptors got their butts handed to them by the San Antonio Spurs last night. I was there, which means I get to break out the international dateline for the first time in this here column! Somewhat more importantly, I witnessed a sad-sack effort from the visiting team and a stellar all-around performance from the home team — including a career night for our old friend, DeMar DeRozan.
So WTF Happened to Our Guys?
Saying “The Raptors were unprepared” or “unfocused” feels like lazy writing, but that’s really just what it looked like out there. They weren't executing anything on offense early (there were mildly better spurts later on) and they clearly had no idea what to do to slow down the Spurs on the other end.
Offensive possessions felt like Kawhi Leonard or Fred VanVleet dribbling a lot, the ball not moving, and the Spurs defense extending everything. It seemed like every offensive action — whether it was a screen, a handoff or just an iso drive — started 12 feet behind the three-point line. Way too many possessions ended without a pass or with one simple action. They made it incredibly easy on the Spurs.
And on the other end, I lost count of how many times the Raptors looked at each other in confusion after made baskets or taking bad fouls, palms up, eyes wide.
The Raptors have developed a reputation — borne out of playoff losses and a weak record against the best teams last season — as no-shows in high pressure games. After beating the Warriors twice in U.S. TV games, I thought that was shifting... but now it’ll be shifting back, and after that performance, frankly, they deserve the doubts.
That Might’ve Been a Nick Nurse Wake-up Call Game
Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest NBA coaches ever, so I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that he coached circles around rookie coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors last night. San Antonio doesn’t play like most NBA teams do these days, with their heavy midrange attack, and the Raptors didn’t seem to know what to do out there.
The Ringer did a nice job breaking down how San Antonio adjusts it’s style when different combinations of players are on the floor.
The Spurs play totally different styles depending on the lineup.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) January 4, 2019
When Aldridge and DeRozan are in the game, the Spurs try 24% of shots from 3, which would rank last.
With one or neither of them that number rises to 33%, which would rank 11th. Read more: https://t.co/X6C4Lw7gnn pic.twitter.com/7H0m9CugFr
That’s something the Raptors have not done this year, and I think it’s cost them; certain groups of players just don’t look comfortable about there. OG Anunoby, for example, is being put in the same positions as Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, and he’s not the ball handler they are. Delon Wright is being asked to play more traditional two-guard like Danny Green, but he’s not a pure shooter. Are the Raps putting these guys in position to succeed?
And speaking of adjustments: How many times are we going to play the “got good shots, they just didn’t fall tonight” song? When do we pass the “eventually” in the “eventually, those shots are gonna drop” line? And how does this team adjust? They have to be able to score in different ways, and other than Kawhi bullying his way to the rim, I don’t see what they are right now, and I’m not entirely confident Nick Nurse is gonna be able to figure it out.
“Bittersweet” Sums up DeMar’s Performance for Me
A big part of my making the trip was to see how DeMar DeRozan would play against his old team, and he responded with a great all-around game: 21 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals. He even played some solid help defense at times!
It was damn weird to see him on the other team, especially when he got the rim early and slammed it home, setting the stage for what was to come over the next three-and-a-half quarters. I wanted to see him do well, of course, so I got my money’s worth on that end! And they love him here, which is nice to see.
But seeing him do so well while the Raptors were getting clobbered. I mean, it was pretty much The Matrix “not like this, not like this...!” gif running through my head for two hours.
I don’t know if DeMar will ever shake his “doesn’t show up in the playoffs” rep, but this was a high-pressure game and his emotions could’ve let it get away from him. Instead, it looks like they fueled him, and he played great. I’m happy for him — but damn, I wish this one had been a bit more of a fight.
Booing Former Stars: Raptors 1, Spurs 0
I’ll give the Spurs fans credit, they starting booing Kawhi Leonard the second he came out of the tunnel, every time he touched the ball in the layup line, during the “Thank you Kawhi and Danny” montage (while cheering Danny Green simultaneously, quite a feat), and throughout the entire game. They added in some “Traitor” chants, while serenading DeMar DeRozan with MVP chants. Even when it was clear the Raptors didn’t bother to show up, the crowd didn’t quit. Kudos to them.
But I give the Raptors crowd, against post-trade Vince Carter, the edge.
It was loud and sustained last night, but in Toronto, it felt like the arena shook those first few Vince games. It was louder than any Tracy McGrady game; I didn’t attend any Chris Bosh games but I don’t think they ever hit the same level. But those Vince games you could feel the vitriol in the air. We wanted blood. We were mad at Carter for quitting, at Rob Babcock for being terrible at his job, at Alonzo Mourning for not showing up, at the whole franchise for bumbling everything... and we took it all out on Vince.
Maybe the Raptors folding early last night had something to do with it; if the game was any contest whatsoever, perhaps Spurs fans would have taken it up a notch. Heck, maybe the AT&T Center has a stronger foundation so you didn’t feel your chair vibrating? I don’t know. But Toronto wins that battle, if nothing else.
Spurs Game Experience: Meh
Once again I’ll give the crowd credit; even when the game was out of reach (so, you know, by the 6-minute mark of the first quarter; I kid. Kinda) they kept up their “Go Spurs Go” chants, and their goofy “Two Shots!” collective scream after shooting fouls are called on the opposing team. But beyond that, the game experience was pretty blah. There was the usual t-shirt toss, and some fun kids dance troupes at halftime, but the contests were pretty lame, and the music was dull. It’s definitely an older crowd, and I’m sure that plays into it.
Raptors games are a much better atmosphere, I can tell you that. Game ops may go too far at times, and they often seem to, er, fail to recognize that their regularly scheduled bits aren’t always appropriately timed. Still, for pure entertainment value, there’s no contest. Oh, and let me say we are blessed — blessed! — to have a downtown arena situated next to a transit hub. The AT&T Center is in the middle of nowhere and it took forever to get back to our hotel.
But hey — shouts to the three older ladies in front of us for cheering “we love you, DeMar!” when the Spurs showed his highlight reel on the jumbotron after he finally left the game
Me too, ladies. Me too.
Shelling out the cash to see your team in person always comes with the risk that they’re gonna lose, badly, or that it’s gonna be a boring game, or that injuries will crop up in between the time you buy that ticket and the actual game. That risk is magnified when you travel to see them! But I wouldn’t change a thing. We had a fun, it was great to see DeMar play well, and to experience a new NBA arena.
I’m not disappointed that we made the trip, but I am definitely disappointed in the effort the Raptors showed. They’re now 8-8 since the 20-4 start. Getting Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas back will help, but this team has just over half a season left and a bunch of issues to sort out. Let’s hope they turn it back around very soon.