You can’t hold me down!
Spurs 89, Raptors 91

Roko Ukic: Clutch scoring personified. Does it sound insane? Yes, but for one night it was true. A total team effort had kept the game close till midway through the fourth and that’s when gut-check time came, usually these Raptors fold like a cheap deck of cards but not tonight. Call it determination, call it luck or just call it plain old resilience, a short-handed Raptors squad traded heavyweight punches with San Antonio and got clutch score after clutch score to keep themselves in it. When the time came to make a defensive stand they did it and when it came down to hitting that key shot that separates the great from the bad, Ukic, Parker and Bargnani delivered. It’s only one game but it’s good to write that the Raptors beat a great team by playing a great game.

Quick note. I hopped four bars to watch this game because of the intermittent TSN2 signal, I was joined by the drunk from Philthy’s who made a Wednesday appearance as we went from Philthy’s to O’Malley’s Pub to Crocodile Rock and finally to the Fox and the Fiddle. All in torrential rain, it was fun. The Syracuse v UConn game was being shown on the other screens and he drunkenly asked, “What game do you think Leo’s watching?”.

I had a good feeling about this one as soon as I saw Jose Calderon in a suit sitting next to Chris Bosh cracking pre-game jokes. Jose probably caught a glimpse of Tony Parker and decided to rest his 74.3514% hamstring for another week. After Foye and Telfair had railed him the previous night this was probably the scariest mismatch of them all and I’m glad he steered clear of it. Parker got the call at the point and Kapono started at SG with Joey Graham playing the SF. O’Neal was handed the task on Tim Duncan as Bargnani checked Bonner, a slower, fatter and tougher version of himself.

We started the game off doing the little things right, AP looked for his shot over the shorter Tony Parker and after a couple scores forced Finley and the San Antonio defense to shade just a little towards him. There was good ball movement and off-the-ball screens set for Kapono which meant Finley had to constantly close him out and frankly, he’s not the Finley of old and was constantly late and fell for every head-fake administered by Kapono. If I’m a Spurs fan I’d be very worried about heading into the post-season with Finley and Bowen as main contributors, maybe they liked what they saw of Parker today.

Bargnani took Tim Duncan out to the wing and had a couple sweeping drives against him, he ended with six first quarter points. Jermaine O’Neal was guarding Tim Duncan and did an alright job in my books, the most important part about his game was that he played Duncan straight-up which meant our defense didn’t have to worry about cheating on shooters to help out down-low, something we suck at. The Spurs who had made 16 threes in the previous meeting made only 5. Parker and Duncan combined for 18 first quarter points, mostly through dribble penetration and by running the pick ‘n roll to perfection but the Raptors managed to keep pace on offense and prevented their shooters from going off.

Bargnani had a solid game but a poor shooting night, he was 8-21 with 8 rebounds but wasn’t a liability on defense as we made a concerted effort of having him guard Bonner and Duncan instead of Manu Ginobili or Finely, which is where he usually ends up after a switch on the perimeter. His numbers might not show it but he gave Tim Duncan a whole lot to think about during the game and the Bargnani/O’Neal tandem had a lot to do with Duncan only having 3 fourth quarter points.

Joey Graham played only nine minutes due to sickness which meant Jamario Moon had his mile-wide grin got the call in the second quarter and didn’t disappoint, a dare three and a nice fast-break find by Roko netted him 6 quick points which meshed well with what others were doing. Triano’s no genius but unlike Sam Mitchell, he actually runs screens for Kapono and tonight O’Neal and Bargnani were setting solid picks to give him the daylight that he needs. His jumper was falling as he ended with 21 on 9-16 including 8 in the quarter. As he drained his third jumper from the high elbow I heard Colangelo’s phone ring.

Our best player of the quarter was Ukic who happens to be one of only two Raptors with a propensity to drive (other one being Joey) and he was showing it against Parker who was caught off-guard. Roko did nothing fancy, he just used the high pick, went right and finished by contorting his body and shot to avoid being blocked. 8 points in the frame for him meant we had a 7 point lead at the half. More importantly, he was making Tony Parker work and don’t for a second think that didn’t come into play in Parker’s shot at the buzzer being so short. Yesterday I said Jose needed to be a little more “traditional” in his approach and today Ukic showed what I meant – just put your head down and turn on the high screen!

The main adjustment from Popovic at the half was to make things a little more simple for the Spurs – space the court out and start shooting some threes. The Spurs started the quarter on a 12-4 run which included two threes by Mason and Ginobili. This was to be expected, the Spurs aren’t going to roll over and die, the question was how would we respond. The Spurs offensive punch was too much to bear as Ginobili and Parker were getting penetration and Thomas and Duncan were controlling the boards. Kapono was our main offensive threat again as he continued his abuse of Finley and ex-defensive-stopper Bowen by releasing early and often. The Spurs had upped their intensity and were making it a point to attack the paint which they did to a 52-32 advantage. The third quarter wasn’t pretty and it followed an all too familiar pattern. Still, the lead we had built up early allowed us to enter the fourth down only 2. That’s more than you can ask for against a great team while being short-handed. The highlight of the quarter for me was Kurt Thomas double-daring Roko to shoot a three and the Rokonator drilling it in his mug. We haven’t had enough moments like those this year.

The fourth quarter started with me puking in my mouth. Ginobili went on a 6-0 run – all on drives – as Bargnani, Moon and Ukic missed deep threes. The Spurs opened up an 8 point lead which seemed a bit too much to overcome given how poorly our offense functions in the clutch. But for the second night in a row the Raptors responded, this time it was Roko Ukic driving right to the rim for a layup and then drawing a foul on a similar play. Finley and Mason missed contested threes and then it happened. We finally looked for Bargnani in the clutch and not surprisingly, he delivered. He had 10 straight Raptor points and matched the unguardable Ginobili point-for-point as the latter was torching Moon, Parker and O’Neal on his drives from the wing.

I thought Bargnani’s play was crucial, the Spurs were in attack-mode and taking everything to the rim, the Raptors were on their heels and this was a trying time for our offense. Bargnani took some jumpers that he would’ve been crucified for if he had missed but he didn’t let his poor shooting night affect his final act. The lead would’ve easily ballooned to 12 or 14 if he hadn’t come to the rescue and he needs to be given a whole lot of credit for having the confidence to take those shots. Roko might be the hero but Bargnani set the stage for him. When Bosh comes back, Bargnani should be the first option in the fourth quarter simply because he doesn’t get scared and is able to make better and quicker decisions with the ball.

Ginobili continued his assault on our wings and drew a key foul against Parker to put the Spurs up five with a 1:45 left but Parker responded with a no-hesitation three after setting himself up off a high screen. AP’s been rightfully maligned for his unclutchness but that three was massive. Tony Parker got the benefit of another call as the Spurs went up by 4 with less than a minute left. Triano opted to not call a timeout (something I highly disagree with) and the play appeared to be going nowhere when O’Neal caught the ball at the left-elbow. Tony Parker got caught sagging off of Roko and O’Neal passed out to his only option and he drained a corner three to bring us back within one. Parker and O’Neal then finally combined for a stop against Ginobili and the ensuing Raptors possession was turning out to be another mess. That is until Roko decided to drive, lean and shoot over Parker and Duncan for two. Ugly? Yes. Do I care? No. Tony Parker’s attempt as time expired was contested by O’Neal and well short. Game over.

If Roko doesn’t make that three or the two shortly after, I’m ripping Triano for not calling timeout. He made the same mistake against Atlanta and repeated it today, he’s lucky to not get burned. Great win for the Raps, what does it mean in the grand scheme of things? Probably nothing more than a feel-good win but still, a great one at that.

Liners:

  • We’ve had three quality wins all year, two really if you discount Houston’s pathetic play that night. In both those wins (Orlando, San Antonio) Roko has been the difference maker.
  • Jack Armstrong and Matt Devlin have both been on Raptors Republic as Podcast guests but let that not stop me from saying that they were brutal to listen to tonight. Mundane, repetitive, boring and pointless. Sorry, but its true.
  • It’s been said over and over again but I’d like to see Bargnani finish stronger in the paint, he opts for the reverse too often instead of going up from the strong-side.
  • Jermaine O’Neal missed three gimme layups in this game, the best one came after he blew by Tim Duncan in the first quarter only to blow it.
  • San Antonio’s Big 3 had 64 points but our “Big 3″ of Bargnani, Kapono and Ukic had 66. Tony Parker might’ve had 22 points but he only had 4 assists and that’s 6 less than the previous meeting. Secret to stopping the Spurs? Contain the three, they’re the second best three point shooting team in the league and rely on it heavily.
  • Roko Ukic is more clutch than Chris Bosh. I swear I’m not even kidding, does it have something to do with him having the ball at the start of the possession? Probably, but the point still stands.
  • I was dreading a Roger Mason Jr. three on the final possession, very shocked that Tony Parker opted for the shot he took.
  • Jermaine O’Neal made Tim Duncan a non-factor in the fourth quarter. Ukic was awesome but I have to give the Player of the Game award to Andrea Bargnani and his 10 fourth quarter points. BIG BUSHEL OF ONIONS.
  • Both the Raptors and Spurs were on the back-end of a back-to-back.
  • Check out a Spurs blog take on things.
  • Me and the drunk from Philthy’s were calculating how much JO makes a second. He makes approximately 21.5M and if he plays 35 minutes per game in 70 games, he’ll stand to make approximately $307,142 per game, that’s $8,775 every minute, that’s about $150 bucks every second. Nice.

This brings us to the All-Star break. We are the second-worst team in the East after Washington and are yet only 5 games out of the final playoff spot. There are six teams in between and assuming those teams play similar percentage basketball, we’ll have to go 19-8 the rest of the way. The schedule does get a little easier for us but this team hasn’t shown that it can win the games that it’s “supposed to win” and to not make a move at the deadline in hopes of salvaging the season with the current roster would be playing heavily against the odds.

Thanks for reading.

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