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Tony Parker: Smooth on the court, smooth with the ladies.

Spurs 113 , Raptors 106 – Box

Nobody is really surprised, and nobody is really complaining. Last night was what most people thought it would be, if not a little more exciting and tolerable. Coming off a victory over the Celtics and two tight, hard-fought, one-possession losses to the Lakers and Knicks, the Raptors could have been forgiven for mailing it in due to emotional exhaustion and letting the Spurs steamroll them. After all, Charlotte looms on Friday, a game far more appropriate for the Raptors and the fan-base to get “up” for.

But Dwane Casey and his troops were having none of it, fighting tooth and nail with the mighty dynasty right down to the wire, eventually falling by 7 points. It wasn’t for lack of effort or execution, as the Raptors ¬†shot 55% from the floor for the game and kept the rebound and turnover battles near a dead heat, but the Raptors were simply out-skilled and out-classed in the waning moments.

It looked like it was going to get ugly as the Spurs had stretched the lead to 14, but the Raps fought back to start the third quarter, hitting their first 10 (TEN!) field goal attempts and tying the game up at 66. The Spurs responded with a 13-4 run of their own, and the lead sat at 5 at the quarter break, a safe threshhold the Raptors couldn’t really cross in the fourth despite a few smaller runs.

In crunch time, Casey was rolling with a curious lineup of Jose Calderon, Anthony Carter, DeMar DeRozan, Rasual Butler, and Ed Davis. No, seriously. And it was moderately effective, as Jose played what feels like his 10th straight all-star calibre game, but in reality is just his fifth superb showing in the past eight days (19.6PPG, 11APG, 59%FG over the last five), while DeMar continued his odd streak of getting red-hot against San Antonio. DeMar poured in 29 points on 13-of-21 shooting, which is impressive, even if you can’t look past the 2 FT attempts, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. At least he attacked occasionally, and there’s not nearly as much wrong with firing up mid-range jimmys when they’re falling as consistently as they did Wednesday.

Back to the odd crunch-time lineup…ummm, weird. Anthony Carter had career highs in points (10), rebounds (5), assists (6), and minutes (22). Wait, Anthony Carter averaged close to those numbers in the early part of this century? He’s been playing for how long? And he’s playing half the game on a rebuilding team? With Rasual Freakin Zombie Corpse Can’t Do Anything G-damn Right Ever Butler (aka Five Seconds)?? I couldn’t be arsed to dig through the game logs, but I’m guessing the last time these two combined to play for 49 minutes, both of their respective teams lost. I know this particular lineup incarnation had some success (at least until Carter fouled out with 2 minutes to play), but the younger players need to have some sort of trial-by-fire to “learn to win” in close games.

I understand the Spurs stayed small (Tim Duncan played but a few seconds in the fourth), but sitting Amir for the entire fourth, even though he was 5/5 for 10 points and 7 rebounds in just 23 minutes, is a terrible means to an end. Going small certainly wasn’t worth replacing one of your most effective players on the night with one of Butler or Carter, even if they were moderately un-embarassing. It’s actually a larger-scale issue I have, an article for another time, with roster utilization in general – why are these guys playing chunks of minutes rather than taking chances on D-Leaguers that have unknown upside? Why taken a known mediocrity over potential? I’m not delusional enough to think finding another Jeremy Lin is likely, but finding a Rafer Alston, Reggie Williams, Kelenna Azubuike, Louis Amundson, etc isn’t outlandish.

Anyway, as far as last night goes, as I said the Raptors just got out-skilled in the final few minutes as the Spurs stretched the lead from 97-96 with 4 minutes to go to our final score. The maddening turning point came after a huge Ed Davis block on Tony Parker preceded Gary Forbes (in for Carter) getting called for a double dribble. This actually happened. And no, it’s not 7th grade. If that doesn’t sum everything up for us all, I don’t know what will.

Even still, this was a game that had considerable value for the team and the franchise. While it might be disheartening for the team to continue to lose close games, this makes 8 straight games since the Celtics thumping where the Raptors have been in it until the end (although the OT loss to the Wizards was inexcusably bad basketball), losing close games to Miami, Washington, Milwaukee, the Lakers, Knicks, and Spurs, with wins against the Wizards and Celtics mixed in. It’s a point differential of +2 in that 2-6 stretch, against opponents with a combined record of 117-119. I’m probably grasping at straws here, but it certainly seems the Raptors have been playing much better basketball of late. The eye test backs this up as well, and Friday’s match-up with the lowly Bobcats should bare this out if it’s actually truth and not anomaly.

For those in the “tanking” camp, this has been a happy stretch of close games lost at the end, games good for development and entertainment, but not damaging to the push for a top-5 pick in June. So congratulations. To the rest of us, it’s just been a nice change to watch consistently hard-played and entertaining basketball, even if the end results are still another year of development away from being where we want them.

Side Notes
*I attended the Lakers game Sunday and the Knicks game Tuesday, just an FYI. I was appalled with the ACC crowd on Tuesday, and while many will disagree, allow me this: a few years back, Steve Nash was awarded the Conacher Award for Canadian Male Athlete of the Year before a Suns/Raptors game. The crowd, understandably and appropriately, cheered him for three quarters. As he began to torch the Raptors in a tight fourth quarter, though, the crowd became anti-Nash and pro-Raptors. For the crowd to remain entirely pro-Lin and pro-Knicks even as he delivered the dagger was embarassing.

*Jose is the man. I know he has his detractors around these parts, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed cheering for him these past few years and would be sad, but happy for him, to see him moved to a contender.

*Jonas….the reports, the comments from insiders and coaches, the videos…just, wow. So excited.