There are games during the course of an 82-game season where whatever you take from it will be a matter of perspective. When the Toronto Raptors are beating up on a lowly Chicago Bulls team or dominating a Philadelphia 76ers outfit down their star center, there isn’t much room for interpretation. Identify cracks or signs of worry, sure, but for the most part 20- and 30-point victories are unanimous “good games.”
Games like Monday’s in San Antonio play out on hardwood stained with shades of gray. How you find yourself feeling afterward depends on your expectations to a degree, your appetite for moral victories, or the leash you’re willing to give a team still finding itself early in the season. Wrapping up the 101-97 loss to the Spurs could go either of two ways: It could focus on a victory nearly stolen in a very difficult place to do that, down a starting center, and with the team playing anything but its best game, perhaps portending better things to come when everything clicks; or it could instead highlight what went into the team playing at a lower level than usual, leading to a squandered opportunity to start 3-0 against a team without their MVP candidate (even if they are 17-4 in their last 21 games without him).
As with most things, the middle ground probably provides the surest footing, though it is a difficult path to navigate your way to. Close games, especially against competition that feels like an even match, are high-emotion events, investment ratcheting up as the game drags on longer and remains in the realm of the uncertain but possible. Frustration sets in, and it’s tough to begrudge those who want to leave moral victories for the minor league coaches. Sports fandom isn’t meant to be rational, at least moment-to-moment. And so when the Raptors are tied midway through the fourth quarter and then fritter the game away in its closing stretches, that can be maddening, even if there’s plenty of context for it.
To that point, the Raptors had shown their good and their bad sides. The new offensive system saw players mostly embracing the idea of moving the ball and looking for the next good look, but a woeful shooting night from beyond the arc (10-of-38) produced a low assist total (17) befitting the Old Raptors, and a box score that looks the product of what’s supposed to be a bygone era. Cold shooting nights are inevitably going to happen as a more high-variance, hopefully high-yield approach comes into greater emphasis, and to their credit, the Raptors fought the urge to revert to their former ways for the bulk of the game. DeMar DeRozan did a decent job moving between playmaker and scorer, shaking off a tough start where an unfriendly whistle seemed to make him uncomfortable, and Norman Powell had one of his best games as an in-control tertiary attacker.
It was at the other end where the team’s play really stood out, with the team turning in their most notable defensive performance of the young season, given the competition. Jakob Poeltl responded exceptionally well to an increased role, tying his career-highs with 26 minutes and 12 rebounds and posting a team-best plus-13, Lucas Nogueira did not have his occasional high-impact night but filled in well enough and didn’t back away from physicality when he found himself in foul trouble, Powell and DeRozan were active forcing turnovers, and the Spurs managed to shoot just 44.4 percent from the floor and were held to only 20 3-point attempts, a major win for a defense in 2017.
A defensive possession, however, ends when the defending team regains possession. That’s not something the Raptors did well, and it’s an area where they figure to miss Jonas Valanciunas in a major way – the Spurs grabbed 18 offensive rebounds and out-rebounded the Raptors 56-33 overall, a ridiculous margin that saw Dejounte Murray tie the Spurs record with 15 rebounds from a guard position. Only one Raptors lineup (the smaller all-bench group) that played more than one minute grabbed more than half of the available rebounds, and the starters managed just 32.3 percent of them. San Antonio scored 21 second chance points to zero for Toronto, an enormous advantage that more than made up the difference. Even still, the Raptors held San Antonio to 101.7 points per-100 possessions, an entirely acceptable mark that speaks to just how good the defense was getting initial stops and forcing turnovers.
Through the mix of good and bad, on a cold shooting night when nobody could grab a rebound, the Raptors entered the fourth only down a point. The all-bench group, which performed well most of the night, was left in perhaps a little too long, opening up a six-point lead early in the quarter but then conceding a 6-0 run right back after a well-timed Spurs timeout. Still, it was 81-81 with 7:45 to go, and despite some looming foul trouble, the Raptors were right there. Grab an extra rebound or have a three finally drop, and they could start a tough trip off with a huge victory.
Things went awry just enough to cost them from there. The counter to “they’re close despite not playing well” is “well, they’re not playing well,” and that caught up with them. Dwane Casey went back to some starters, including Nogueira, a call some took issue with but initially seemed like a decision to get Poeltl a breather rather than play him 15-plus minutes straight to close the game. When the Spurs kept rolling, Casey went even smaller with Serge Ibaka at center, the first time the team’s tried that all season. That’s going to be a useful formation on some nights, but a night when rebounding is already a major issue wasn’t it, and after Ibaka continued his streak of ticking off opposing power forwards and got double technicals with LaMarcus Aldridge, Ibaka picked up a sixth foul on a post-up. And after fighting the urge most of the night, the offense in the middle of the fourth devolved into what many have feared it would when backs are against walls, and DeRozan lost the handle after a solid game to that point.
When Ibaka fouled out, the Raptors were down 10 with only two minutes to go, so the return to Poeltl came too late. They made a game of it still, cutting the lead to three in the closing seconds, but the miracle they needed to complete the comeback never materialized. Worse yet, DeRozan appeared to tweak his right knee and was icing his knee and hip after the game, saying “we’ll see” when asked if it was anything serious, per Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun.
It was a disappointing end to a tight game, the biggest test the Raptors have faced yet and one they couldn’t overcome. There is a ton of room for what-ifs in a four-point game where the team shot 26 percent on threes, only grabbed 62 percent of rebounds on their own glass, and got almost nothing from their All-Star point guard, Kyle Lowry, and a better performance in any of those areas could have swung the game. Perhaps because something like rebounding can be used as a proxy for effort, physicality, or toughness, a game like this contains additional room for frustration, rendering any positives as downplayed or forgotten.
Again, all of the takeaways are there, positive or negative. Nobody expected the Raptors to come out of the gate perfect, not when they’re deep with inexperience, when their holdovers are trying to figure out a new philosophy of play, and when they’re out their best rebounder and most physical interior presence. Adversity was going to strike at some point on the trip, and how the Raptors respond from here, particularly with their offense coming off of a tough scoring night, will say a lot about where they’re at in their growth and how strong their resolve is without an established track record of success with it just yet. An even bigger test looms Wednesday with the Golden State Warriors, and concern could grow higher if the Raptors fail to measure up and execute to the level of their opponent once again. This was always going to be a difficult trip, and a missed opportunity to get an early win hurts.