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Night of tributes ends with Raptors win over the Spurs, 120-117

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With the return of DeMar DeRozan to Toronto, there was something special in the air. And fortunately for the Raptors, that atmosphere propelled them to a 120-117 win over the Spurs.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways, tonight’s 120-117 Raptors win, despite all the new players in Toronto, was something of a throwback. There were a handful of wild runs and surprising heroics, it often felt like the home team was blowing it, the crowd serenaded the officials with a “refs you suck” chant, and the final play owed everything to DeMar DeRozan. It was stressful, as Raptors games continue to be, but also comforting.

Yes, this was the first appearance of DeRozan, the former Mr. I Am Toronto, in the city that raised him to basketball maturity. He’s the leader of the Spurs now, chugging away as their per game leader in points and assists, earning plaudits along the way from San Antonio’s notoriously hard-to-please coach Gregg Popovich. As DeRozan mused metaphorically yesterday, the breakup with Toronto was hard for him, but he’s moved on and is happy now. As Raptors fans, we collectively want that to be true even as we cheer now for those aforementioned new players and dream about all the places they’ll be able to take us — places to which DeRozan could never reach.

In that dutiful spirit of tribute, the arena was appreciative. DeRozan was cheered when he took the court for the first time, given a rousing ovation when he was announced as a starter, and, as is tradition, presented with a superlative retrospective video. It was hard not to be overcome by emotion. “It’s an honour,” DeRozan said. “It’s been practically my whole career here. To come back and get a reception like that is definitely humbling, beyond gratifying, and I appreciate it.”

And just as Toronto came out in support of DeRozan, the arena game-ops staff later presented Jakob Poeltl with a video, then the Scotiabank Arena on the event of its 20th anniversary got one, and finally there was a little Black History Month shoutout to broadcasting legend John Saunders. (We’ll never know how Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli felt about their lack of tributes; both played well, suggesting at least some residual emotion.) And this is before we even get to the on-court homages.

Beyond watching DeRozan, whose 23 points (on efficient 7-of-12 shooting), eight assists, and four rebounds led the Spurs, the players of note in this one were always going to be Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. The former was looking for a modicum of redemption against his former team, in not so many words (of course). And the latter was looking to go at his best friend on the court for the first time since they’d become best friends. These were subplots heading into the game — but they became the main theme, writ large.

For Kawhi’s part, it looked like it was to be a redux of the debacle in San Antonio. Leonard had just six points in the first half on terrible 2-of-12 shooting. There seemed to be no lift in his legs and he just wasn’t making his presence felt on either end of the court. Fortunately for Toronto, Kawhi turned things around in the second half, going off for 19 points (on a more Kawhi-esque 6-of-11 line). Leonard even went at DeRozan for a key possession late and finished with a DeMar-like fadeaway jumper in his face. Quite the tribute indeed.

Meanwhile, Lowry looked especially fired up for this game. After a couple of months of up-and-down and injury-riddled play, it was inspiring to see the Complete Kyle Lowry Package appear once again for the Raptors. Lowry finished the night with 17 points (on 50 percent shooting from the field) plus five assists and three rebounds. But in true KLOE fashion, the numbers belie his real impact. Throughout, it was Lowry’s spirit — his angry, animated, furious spirit — that kept pushing the Raptors towards the win. That Lowry got the better of DeRozan the couple of times he defended him one-on-one was surely a nice bonus. “It was fun, pretty fun, especially that we got the win,” said Lowry. “If we lost, it would have been terrible.”

Before we get to the game’s ultimate tribute, some other contributions of note for Toronto: Jeremy Lin coming in to steady the ship for stretches with 11 points; OG Anunoby going 3-for-3 from deep; Serge Ibaka outplaying LaMarcus Aldridge with 13 points and 15 rebounds; Pascal Siakam coming alive with 22-and-6 and a key late tip-in; and Marc Gasol, still very much finding himself in Toronto, chipping in with six assists, seven rebounds, and one apoplectic reaction. On the whole, it’s fair to say the Raptors’ three-point shooting carried them in this one, what with their 14-for-30 (47 percent) turnout, and I suppose we could also talk about the refs too, and Nick Nurse’s ejection (of which he said it was “worth every penny”). But also: life is short.

Against the Spurs, a team that subsumes its players into a strong collective identity, it was stressful to watch these new Raptors find themselves. They’re trying to integrate a handful of new players on the fly — and are already relying on a couple of them (in Lin and Gasol) a great deal. DeRozan is not lying when he says he’s happy in San Antonio because why wouldn’t he be? They’ve already put him in a position to be his best possible self and to succeed. It just so happens that the Raptors — especially as now personified by Kawhi — have more overall talent. And they still have Lowry to make it all work.

And so we arrive at the play that decided it all. With the game on the line and DeRozan bringing the ball up against Kawhi, this was the moment to see what the old Raptor would do against the new. The ending could not have been written any better, especially as Lowry dove in for the trap, pressuring DeRozan to cough up the ball right into the snapping jaws of Kawhi. Breakaway dunk, Raptors up by one, Davis Bertans misses the last shot — ball game.

There is something poetic about all of this. All of DeRozan’s late-game breakdowns over the years (despite, yes, some heroics in there too), ultimately led to Toronto’s decision to trade him away. It also feels somehow correct that Lowry would get the better of his old pal. And that Kawhi, dead-eyed though he may be at times, would be there to clean things up and put it all away. This is the kind of game DeRozan maybe could have won for the Raptors in the past, and also the kind of thing that would happen to Toronto under his watch. If nothing else, perhaps the torch truly has been passed on. To me, there’s no better tribute than that.