Life without Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka has proven to be a bit of an adjustment for the Raptors. Tonight against the San Antonio Spurs in a 119-114 loss, it was the team’s defensive effort and attention to detail that couldn’t stay consistent. So far, there’s just been a stylistic difference between those two defensive stalwarts (particularly Gasol) and what Aron Baynes can do — and some of the reason for the Raptors’ rough start is in trying to close that gap as a team.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, their new defensive woes were also magnified by the bench tonight, which helped allow the Spurs to pour in 61 points at the half. The lineup of Fred VanVleet-Matt Thomas-Norman Powell-OG Anunoby-Chris Boucher proved to be small, and was a total mess with their defensive rotations and communication. The starters were just marginally better — but still, a few below the standard set these past few seasons. It’s clear more work is needed for Toronto. With the team getting 16 points apiece from Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, they needed support from elsewhere.
Much as they did on opening night, the Raptors came out looking good with Siakam pushing the ball to get into early transition or mismatch opportunities. The quality shots they created saw the Raptors pull ahead early, with the team putting up 39 points in that opening frame around a balanced attack. Meanwhile, DeMar DeRozan led the counterattack, as his scoring in the quarter (16 points) and playmaking got the Spurs feeling good with their offense.
It wasn’t all bad news for the Raptors’ bench, by the way. The team saw quality minutes from Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas, who combined for 17 points in the first half. However, the Raptors’ sloppy defense and inability to hit their shots saw them go through a three- minute drought in the second quarter. The Spurs mounted a 15-3 run to take the lead late in the first half.
The third quarter saw the Raptors step up their defense, and still maintain their break-neck pace offensively. Coach Nick Nurse sprinkled a few nifty sets that we probably haven’t seen before, and wouldn’t you know it: Toronto reclaimed the lead, and ended up to 75-69. However, the defense was unsustainable and got even worse when the reserves came in for the Raptors. The Spurs finished strong, with a balanced attack, going for a 22-11 run to retake the lead 91-86 to end the third.
The fourth quarter became a back-and-forth event. For the Raptors, VanVleet and Boucher scored 10 points apiece to keep the team in it. They’d reclaim the lead after a VanVleet bucket, putting them up 103-101 midway through the final frame. Once again it felt the Raptors were ready to win out, as VanVleet was going on a tear, scoring and dishing three assists. Unfortunately that play was met by some heady shotmaking from DeRozan, who also dropped ten in the frame — which is ten more than Siakam scored, who went just 0-for-3 in the fourth.
The lineup of VanVleet-Lowry-Anunoby-Siakam-Boucher gave the Raptors some defensive stability. They were able to stop the Spurs in several possessions in crunch time, however as expected of that lineup: Toronto failed to secure some key defensive rebounds. It led to our old friend DeRozan making some big plays, including hitting one of his three 3s (yes, really) late to help seal it for San Antonio. For his efforts, DeRozan finished with 27 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 assists, while the Raptors were paced by Fred VanVleet’s 27 points and 9 assists. Chris Boucher was the X-factor of the game for the Raptors, who poured in a near-Olajuwon triple-double, going for 22 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 blocks.
Since we’re in the middle of the holidays, let’s recall the old saying: you can’t out-train a bad diet. In two games, the Raptors seem to be going for a high-octane offense, getting up and down the court as much as they can; but also relying on a less-than-sharp defense. There are issues in the starting lineup defensively, but Baynes and the starters should come together in time. It’s Toronto’s bench — in particular, the pairing of Thomas and Powell — where the Raptors look vulnerable.
To be clear: it’s not all on Norm’s play, or the defensive lapses of Thomas, but it points to some of the largers flaws with the team. So far through two games, teams have pushed the Raptors around a bit, and they haven’t be able to respond as they did last year. Will that change for the third game of the season?