A nine-point loss to this Spurs team in this building, at this stage in this season, is nothing to be ashamed of.
The third period outburst by the Spurs was a complete reversal of the first half when the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan was having his way against the hosts with 20 points.
Clearly Gregg Popovich’s half-time talk centred on the second-year Raptor because for the majority of the third every time the ball found DeRozan he had one or two Spurs all but inside his uniform with him.
That aggressive tactic dogged him into two turnovers as they turned up the defensive heat the way only a Spurs team knows how.
“It felt like I was back in high school,” DeRozan said. “They were sending doubles and everything.”
Having lost four in a row, DeRozan was intent on ending the losing skid here regardless of the opponent. Had he been able to continue his first half play he might have had a shot, but even then there wasn’t much offence coming from anywhere else in the lineup.
Bargnani suffered through his third poor shooting night of the trip. Granted his troublesome knees were bad enough that he had to sit out practice on Tuesday, something he doesn’t like to do, but Bargnani didn’t want to use that as an excuse.
But watching him hobble to the bus with enough ice strapped around his legs to keep the team beer chilled all the way to Florida, there was no way it couldn’t have factored in.
“I didn’t practise Tuesday so I’m not 100%, but that’s not an excuse, right?” he said.
In the three games so far on this trip, Bargnani is shooting at a very un-Bargnani-like 32.8% (19-for-58). His 6-for-20 evening against the Spurs, however, was the most troubling so far.
“To me, they definitely did nothing,” he said of the Spurs defence. “My teammates passed me the ball in the right moments. It was just me not making the shots. In New Orleans it was tough because they played great defence but tonight I just played bad.”
As good as the Spurs are — a league-best 35-6 going into the game, 22-2 at home and winners of 15 straight here — the Raptors made them look mortal in taking a 53-42 halftime lead.
With excellent swarming defence, they held San Antonio to just 34.9 per cent shooting and got a 20-point explosion from DeRozan in the opening two quarters to take the lead.
Tim Duncan was a non-factor in the half, missing all four shots he took, and had it not been for Ginobili, who had 13 points, the Spurs might have been buried.
Raptors assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo spent five seasons as an assistant to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and said the organization’s “corporate knowledge” is what sets it apart from many others.
“They’ve had guys that have been here for a long time,” Carlesimo said Wednesday morning. “He can come out in the first practice and say, ‘Do this drill.’ It’s not like what Jay (Triano) has to go through, tell every guy what the drill is.”
Because of that familiarity, Popovich isn’t all that worried about what happens early in a season and is willing to sacrifice a game here or there so the veteran players are as fresh as they can be when the games really count — in the playoffs.
“Now, he wants to win enough games, and he wants the team to get better, but he genuinely doesn’t care if they’re a one seed or a four seed or whatever,” said Carlesimo. “You’ve got to win some games on the road in the playoffs anyway.”
“I thought for the first half, take away the 10-0 run to start the game, we battled back and did a really nice job,” Toronto coach Jay Triano said. “At halftime, we knew they were going to come out. They probably got read the riot act. I don’t know if it was our inability to stop them as much as our inability to score as the game went on. We just had a hard time scoring. We became very one dimensional. DeMar was the only one that could score for us.”
Calderon and Bargnani each finished with 14 points for the Raptors.
The Spurs struggled in the first half, shooting just 35 per cent. DeRozan scored five points during a 9-0 run that gave the Raptors a 49-38 lead with two minutes left in the half.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” DeRozan said. “We were beating up on one of the best teams in the NBA, but we got to hold the lead.”
The N.B.A. will add DeMar DeRozan to the slam dunk competition, which will be held during All-Star weekend. He will assume the spot vacated by Brandon Jennings, who is returning from a fractured left foot. DeRozan’s selection is expected to be announced on Thursday.
DeRozan, a guard for the Toronto Raptors, finished second to Nate Robinson in last year’s competition. DeRozan is a native of California, and the All-Star Game will be played at Staples Center.
I have not seen the Raptors play much this season, and to be honest I was not impressed despite the close game tonight. The reputation is that they do not have any talent, but Bargnani, DeMar Rozen, Calderon can be a pretty good core, and other players like Ed Davis and Bayless are promising. The problem is that they are just a random collection of players, not a team of complementary parts like the Spurs, Celtics, Lakers, and other top teams. They play with great energy and hustle on the offensive end, but often play individual ball with limited ball movement. Perhaps the biggest problem is that they lack a strong post presence as Bargnani, despite his height, is not a post player at this point.
Andrea Bargnani is a seven footer that wanted no part of rebounding, posting up, or coming anywhere near any big guys on the Spurs. The mere threat of Tim Duncan in the middle caused him to stop and take jump shots instead of dribbling in and taking a shot or passing out to open teammates. He shot 6-20, and only got to the free throw line once – because of lack of aggressiveness, not lack of calls. If you are seven feet tall and can dribble like a guard you have no excuse for going 6-20. None.
Andrea gets a lot of grief, but it is also an organizational problem – he has the raw talent but needs a strong coaching staff to nurture and teach him.
At the heart of the Spurs troubles in the opening half were a combination of sloppy execution and an active Toronto Raptors zone defense. I struggle to recall a team so blatantly playing a straight zone defense for such a long stretch, as the Raptors did through pretty much the entire second quarter. But such is the life of an NBA team forced to play defensive turnstiles Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani together for 35-plus minutes.
The lone effective practitioner of the zone as a base defense, the Dallas Mavericks, get away with it by disguising it with different looks in man-to-man defensive principles. The Raptors game plan was to stay exclusively in a zone, and for a half it worked to perfection.
“We missed a lot of open shots and were a little passive,” said San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili. “We didn’t attack aggressively against that kind of zone, so we kind of helped them.”
Against the zone defense, the Spurs attempted all of six three-pointers in the first half–something Ginobili has been able to knock out by himself on many occasions this season. Tentative shooters wasted any initial penetration, with George Hill and Gary Neal guilty of passing up shots in favor of fruitless drives back into the heart of the Raptors defense. Over passing and generally poor decisions led to 12 first-half turnovers (the Spurs had 17 overall) and 15 of their 22 fast break points.
Raptors center Andrea Bargnani
(On his recent shooting struggles)
“The last two games, I don’t really know, I was just shooting. It’s not a big deal. I was just a little upset because I was playing the last two games like I did the previous 39 or 40 games, but I definitely feel bad about it.”
(On his health — particularly in regards to his knees)
“I’m alright. I mean, I practiced yesterday, so that’s not an excuse, right?”
(On his play against the Spurs)
“My teammates passed me the ball in the right moments. They gave me some great balls. It was just me not making the shots. I was just playing bad.”