Streak finally ends as Spurs blow out Raptors

Nothing good lasts forever.

Well, folks, it’s finally happened. The five game winning streak given to us by our beloved Raps for the holidays came to an end last night at the hands of the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs, and it’s back to reality here in RaptorLand. Like the streak, it’s important to keep things in perspective following this loss – without in any way belittling the excellent Raptor efforts we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, the streak came against largely sub-par NBA teams (with Houston and Dallas being important exceptions), and the loss tonight, albeit one of the more substantial variety, came against one of the league’s perennial contenders. On paper, tonight’s matchup was a shorthanded, scrappy team against a well-built roster featuring two all-stars and one of the best players of all time, and that’s largely what we saw on the court tonight. As always, I’ll be focusing on the game in general in this recap; for my breakdown of each Raptor with grades, click here for my Quick Reaction post.

As the game got underway, it was clear that the Raptors’ shorthandedness was going to be an issue against the Spurs in a way that hadn’t manifested itself during the streak. The Raptors started Aaron Gray in place of Jonas, who played about as well as Aaron Gray can play given extended minutes: he played adequate, if plodding, defence, provided a large body on screens, and had virtually no offensive value to the team. Recognizing this, the Spurs sank back into what appeared to be a very loose man defence (very loose to the point where I thought they’d switched to a zone numerous times), challenging the Raptors to shoot from the perimeter over and over in the early going. Although this set allowed us to see Ed Davis operate a bit from the perimeter, which was very interesting – he made a couple of long twos and seemed comfortable handling the ball for the most part – it also pushed the Raps into a lot of low-percentage shots, ones that Jack and Matt continually reminded us during the broadcast had been falling during the winning streak, and that they missed tonight.

The Spurs also exploited the Raptors’ lack of depth at the two big positions on the offensive end as the game begun. Tim Duncan was unconscious to start this game: left in the midrange by the slow-footed Gray, he routinely made 15 foot set shots look easy and also showcased an underrated passing game from the high post. Later in the game, he switched his attack to the back-to-the-basket variety, hitting a couple of nice turnarounds on post ups, particularly a vintage move where he banked in a 10-footer high off the backboard. It’s tough to fault Gray here, basically because we’re talking about a 12th man center trying to mark one the greatest power forward ever, but it set the tone in the early going and led the Spurs to shoot 58% in the opening quarter, while the Raps shot a paltry 38%.

Somehow, someway, though, the Raptors ended the quarter only down 4, largely due to the team’s active switches on the Spur wings leading to defensive turnovers (as well as a couple of ugly Spurs passes). The Spurs committed an uncharacteristic 6 turnovers in the first, giving the Raptors attempt 9 more shot attempts in the stanza and allowing Raptor fans a glimmer of hope that if the team could continue to scrape, claw, and minimize mistakes, maybe, just maybe, we could pull out this game.

One last point on the whole Gray situation before I moved on: after the Lowry and Bargnani injuries, it was quite obvious that the injured player the Raps missed most tonight was Jonas. Disregarding the great game he had against the Spurs the last time these teams met, the athleticism he brings to the center position is absolutely key when the Raptors play a team featuring a versatile big like Duncan. Not only would Spur defenders be unable to forget about him on the Raps’ offensive sets, his speed on the defensive side of the ball would allow him to play Duncan’s midrange game honestly instead of sagging, and still have enough time to potentially help on any slashing guards (something the Raptor bigs did do fairly well tonight in the early going, admittedly). I’m not saying that Jonas is more valuable than Lowry or Bargs (you can decide that for yourself), but basketball is all about matchups, and the Raps really could have used him tonight.

The second quarter saw the Raps empty their bench, which included the first playing time for Landry Fields since early November. Although Fields did only have 2 points on the night, I thought he played reasonably well: though the rust is clearly there – made particularly clear on one close out where he basically jumped a foot beside Danny Green – so is the hustle and skill, and here’s to hoping that the injury was at least partially to blame for his unbelievably slow start to the season. The stat sheet may have been bare, but he hustled hard for rebounds and on defence and tonight was the best he’s looked in a Raptor uniform. I realize that’s like saying Derrick Rose’s Malcolm X tattoo one is his best (here’s the full list – my favourite is “Poohdini”), but it’s a step in the right direction, at least.

Early in the quarter though, the Raps’ reserves seemed to be outplaying the Spurs’, which led to the team keeping the game close and even taking the lead for a brief period. Tim Duncan’s absence as a lane-clogger led to the Raptor bench driving the ball through the lane, leading to both uncontested shots on the perimeter which finally began to fall as well as directly to baskets, the aforementioned Fields floater being a prime example. The reserves also held their own defensively even while playing an undersized lineup with Kleiza at the 4 – Ross did a decent job on Ginobili, who was bailed out by the referees on numerous occassions, and even Lucas wasn’t a liability as Nando de Colo seemed to forget that he could do something other than dribble the ball up and pass it off.

With 6 minutes left in the half and the game tied, Pop decided he had seen enough, and reinserted the Spur starters, a move that could essentially double as this game’s TSN Turning Point. As the Raptors began to reinsert their starters, the Spurs ratcheted up the defensive intensity, and the Raps were simply not prepared for it – passes out of the lane were all of a sudden being picked off, the hoop was no longer open, and the Raptors began to panic at the offensive end, with numerous players, even the unassailable Jose the Starter, throwing the ball away. The crowd began getting into it and the Raptors went into the half down 7, though you had a feeling watching the game that their chance may have slipped away.

Turnovers were really the story of this game, as I referred to in the quick reaction. Both teams had issues with them – the Spurs early, and the Raptors from the late second on – one was strong enough to overcome those issues, and the other wasn’t. I don’t think anyone was under the impression that anything but a flawless game from these shorthanded Raps would be enough to beat the Spurs, and 15 turnovers (the total after it was all said and done) is far from flawless. Call it what you want, but I’ll chalk it up to an inexperienced team trying to play outside its capabilities, falling behind, and then pressing – we’ve seen it before in RaptorLand, and we’ll see it again. It’s frustrating, but it’s a lot less frustrating than a lack of effort.

One other note on the first half that was worth mentioning was Ed Davis making his case for the Raptor Dunk of the Year with a huge slam on Tim Duncan that came seemingly out of nowhere. Now, you’ll never find a bigger fan of the Big Fundamental than me, but with other team’s star players getting their posterizing licks in on Raptor bigs during our early struggles, there was something satisfying about watching Davis come in hard on an All-Star big. Here it is, in all its glory:

Coming out of the locker room to start the second half you could tell the Raptors had spoken about minimizing turnovers and not settling for jump shots, and it was evident early in the quarter, where DeMar finally reminded everyone that he’s on the team with a couple of nice finishes at the rim. Besides this early stretch, DeMar really disappeared tonight, which is unfortunate – I know he’s played a lot of minutes this season, and Jose tends to look for his bigs first, but the Raptors really could have used his balance tonight with the rest of their wings seemingly content to hoist up shots from 20 feet. The Raps continued to hang in the game with tough defence, Duncan continued to eat Aaron Gray for breakfast, and Parker continued to slash past Calderon at will (though, ironically, Gray staying home meant he had a tough time finishing at the rim), and, seemingly through sheer force of will, the Raptors were only down 4 points with four minutes left in the quarter. At this point, the most optimistic of us were crossing our fingers, pointing at our winning streak and quietly thinking to ourselves “hey, we’ve seen crazier!”.

That mini-euphoria, though, was short lived, as a 13-4 Spurs run fueled by some back-breaking Ginobili 3s and Parker drives pushed the lead to 13 at the end of the quarter. The Spurs managed to break the game open by ramping up the pace to a fever pitch, forcing the Raptors to play an up-and-down game with them that the team was simply unprepared to play, especially in its turnover prone state. It’s looks like this that have a lot of people thinking the Spurs are legit championship contenders yet again this season – young legs like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard give them a way to force the tempo if their typical half-court style isn’t getting the job done. All credit to the great Gregg Popovich as well, who realized the Raptors’ deficiencies and made a proper course correction to take advantage of them.

The fourth quarter began with the Raptor bench in yet again, and needing a run to keep the game within reach – seemingly attainable given their success in the first half. However, the whole team appeared to go cold at the same time, with what seemed like every Raptor player missing open shot after open shot, and the Spurs quickly pushed the lead up to 16, at which point Casey (smartly, in my opinion) threw in the towel and allowed the reserves to try and get their stats. Chief among this mess was Kleiza, who, playing out of position at the 4, was on the receiving end of what seemed to be some bad officiating (more on this in a minute) and reacted by getting pissy and forcing the action even more than usual. On the broadcast, Matt and Jack spoke about him needing to “just forget it and play,” which is when I knew he was toast – as any readers who are athletes know, once you let emotion creep into your game, it’s exceedingly difficult to get it out midway through your performance, and Casey smartly pulled him, allowing what may have been the smallest Raptor lineup I’ve ever seen (Amir, Fields, Anderson, Lucas, and Ross) play a good chunk of the fourth.

Credit to Casey here for not getting overzealous and putting our starters back into the game – even though this lineup was obviously deficient in many ways, the score and our current injury woes basically dictated that this was a situation where the team needed to just outlast the clock and leave in one piece. I’ve criticized Casey’s substitution patterns multiple times in this space before, but he made an uncharacteristic decision tonight in a positive light, which was good to see – a very Popovich-ian decision, even.

I said earlier I’d comment on the officiating and I made my thoughts clear in the Quick Reaction post last night but I’ll do so again here really quickly: the Spurs, particularly their star players, got away with a lot more than the Raptor players tonight, and got favourable calls on the offensive end as well. The final free throw attempt totals were a ridiculous 12 to 29, and although this is largely predicated on the Raps’ chosen style of play this game, I will say this: giving a star player the “benefit of the doubt” when it comes to a foul call or non-call is ridiculous. NBA officials, like NBA players, are supposed to be the best in the world at what they do, and making decisions like this is a crutch at the very best, and favouritism at the very worst. I do realize that that’s how things have always happened, and will continue to happen, in the league, but I just wanted to point out that “he’s Tim Duncan” is no excuse for a poor call, and NBA personnel and commentators should stop using it as a legitimate argument. But anyways, down off my soapbox, and back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Big picture, this loss doesn’t mean much for Toronto – a blowout against a more skilled, more healthy team is nothing to be upset about. Short term, it does mean that our streak has ended and that the team will carry a loss into their next matchup for the first time in a couple of weeks: a winnable game on Friday night against the soon-to-be New Orleans Pelicans. Here’s to the start of a new streak.

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