July 18, 2018. A date many Raptor fans may never forget. While many were sleeping, Raptors president Masai Ujiri was working the phones with the Spurs’ R.C. Buford to orchestrate the biggest trade in Toronto franchise history.
We all woke up to the news that the Raptors traded their four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and this year’s first-round pick to the Spurs for NBA champion and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Toronto has reached agreement in principle to acquire San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard for package that includes DeMar DeRozan, league sources tell ESPN. Trade is larger on both sides, and players are still being informed of their inclusion in the deal. Trade call with league today.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 18, 2018
Fast forward seven months and here we are. DeRozan makes his first return to Toronto as a member of the Spurs. It’s a game that doesn’t seem to have a cloud over it (like Kawhi in San Antonio), even though it shocked and stung him from the moment it happened. Why? Well, it appears he has moved on and is happy where he’s at. In DeRozan’s words:
DeMar DeRozan: "Time does heal everything. That don't mean it's gonna go back to the same way that it was. I'm fine with that. I moved on. I'm happy where I'm at...We all moved on."— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) February 21, 2019
For Leonard, he sees this game like any other. That’s really all to be said about this by the man of a few words.
Any emotions before playing San Antonio again?— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) February 21, 2019
Kawhi: "No. Just want to play (like) any other game."
As DeRozan and the Raptors and Leonard and the Spurs all have turned the page, it feels like all parties got what they wanted. The Spurs moved on with their disgruntled star in trading away Leonard for a sound player in DeRozan. He’s arguably having his best year from an overall offensive standpoint, averaging 21.4 points on 52.4 true shooting percentage, 6.1 assists, and 6.1 rebounds. While Poeltl is still figuring it out, San Antonio is the best place for him to develop his skills.
On the other hand, the Raptors made a move to get over the playoff hump to make a run to the NBA Finals in acquiring one of the best two-way players in the league in Leonard and a solid 3-and-D player in Green. The two have gelled incredibly well as their numbers and play on the court show. We’ve seen them fit right into Toronto’s offensive and defensive schemes, make big plays, and hit clutch shots. Now, it’s just a matter of continuing their success into the postseason.
Now, it’s time to look at the task at hand for both teams. The Spurs have the Raptors’ number in this game after the 125-107 beating they handed Toronto last month. It was a game to forget for the Raptors as Leonard heard all the boos and chants of “traitor” throughout the game while DeRozan stuck it to his former team, recording his very first triple-double with 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists.
The Raptors had no rhythm right from tip-off, mainly because Kyle Lowry was dealing with his back injury at the time and sat out. Coming out of the All-Star break on a six-game winning streak with a record of 43-16, and with Lowry and the team healthy (except for Fred VanVleet), Toronto should look to be aggressive right from the get-go.
For the Spurs, they’re 33-26 on the year, good for seventh in the Western Conference. They’re in the fifth game of their eight-game annual rodeo road trip. It has been a rocky one, to say the least, as they lost the first four games of the trip by an average margin of 20.7 points, including a 39-point shellacking by the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
With both teams wanting to win this game badly as well as to start the second half of the season on a high note, this should be a good one. Here are the game details, followed by what you should watch for.
Where to Watch
TSN, 7 p.m. EST
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
San Antonio — Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Davis Bertans, LaMarcus Aldridge
Toronto — Fred VanVleet (Thumb — out)
San Antonio — Dejounte Murray (Knee — out), Derrick White (Heel — out)
Watch Out for Ugly Basketball
With the recent acquisition of Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin just before the All-Star break, the new-look Raptors haven’t yet had a good stretch of days to play together. The team did hold a practice on Tuesday that included Gasol and Lin, and there’s been the usual shootaround, but without actual game time we don’t quite know how the Raptors will gel. Fortunately, both Gasol and Lin are heady players, with the former possessing an intuitive feel for the game with his play-making, and the latter noted as being one of the best competitors around.
Still, deadline trades can be tough adjustment and the Raptors have barely had their whole squad together this season even before the deals. When you add in the long All-Star break, it feels likely that everyone will be trying to figure out how to play with each other and get back up to speed. Watch out for a little rust.
Find What Works
The coaching staff have 23 more games to figure out how to use the Raptors’ new and existing players in certain situations and figure out a working rotation. Coach Nick Nurse is still unsure if he wants Serge Ibaka starting at centre or Gasol. Ibaka has been great all year, so to take him out of the starting lineup in favour of Gasol could cause some funk with chemistry and schemes on both offence and defence.
To add to that, inserting Gasol in the starting lineup could be an upgrade on both ends of the floor, but the trade-off is that the bench could take a hit. Gasol is a more complementary player than Ibaka in terms of creating opportunities for guys like Lin, Norman Powell, and OG Anunoby. Having Gasol play with the bench unit could help produce a balanced attack on both ends of the floor, where the talent isn’t as great as the starting unit.
Mr. I Am Toronto
There are two types of Raptor fans: those who were and still are against trading away DeRozan and those who were extremely happy with the team upgrading from DeRozan to Leonard. Yet those two types of fans have something in common: they miss and still love DeRozan.
Expect Scotiabank Arena to be the loudest it will ever be when DeRozan is introduced in the starting lineups tonight. And it won’t end there of course. As is tradition, there will definitely be a tribute video at the first break in play in the first quarter. We could also expect tears running down on the faces of fans, making it one of the most emotional returns of a former Raptor.
Whatever your take is on him, DeRozan worked hard to bring out the best in himself and will always be the one who never gave up on the team or city. He is and will always be Toronto.