Raptors’ defense hangs on in low-scoring battle with Spurs

Raptors 86, Spurs 83 | Box Score | Quick Reaction | Reaction Podcast

Not all tight, low-scoring games are created equally.

Whereas Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons was an exercise in hair-pulling, eye-covering ugliness, Friday’s game between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was even worse on paper yet somehow far more pleasing in aesthetic terms. Through some combination of the aura around a visiting Spurs team, even down three players, one of the Raptors’ best defensive showings of the season, and a slightly early tip-time that seemed to help with the Air Canada Centre’s energy, an 86-83 victory for the home side landed firmly on the enjoyable side. And encouraging, too – the Raptors didn’t have the offensive juice that’s defined their season in the headlines so far, instead beating a game and savvy opponent in a way that continues to solidify their standing as a top-10, if not top-five defense.

Jonas Valanciunas provided a decent omen out of the gate, nailing a three against a slumped-back Pau Gasol with all the time in the world to start the scoring. Unfortunately, that was about all the scoring the Raptors could muster early on – DeMar DeRozan started cold with a few errant jumpers and a miss at the rim going left, OG Anunoby missed a corner three and a couple of put-back attempts, and Serge Ibaka travelled on an otherwise seamless double-cut sequence. All told, the team started 3-of-14 from the floor with three quick turnovers. That gave San Antonio plenty of time to ease into things to build a lead, sticking long twos at a rate that would be unsustainable were they not the Spurs and going on a slow-rolling 8-0 run to open up an early lead.

A timeout helped the Raptors compose themselves, responding with a quick Ibaka bucket and a Kyle Lowry three as the trailer in transition after DeRozan came up with a steal. DeRozan then got on the board via a very tough-looking floater, and he and the bench completed the mini-comeback thanks to some nice defense and finishing from Jakob Poeltl. LaMarcus Aldridge put the Spurs back ahead to end the quarter, but those represented San Antonio’s only points over nearly five minutes to end the quarter. The low-scoring quarter saw the teams shoot a combined 33.3 percent, shoot two total free throws, and commit seven turnovers, ugly enough for the Raptors to be within a point despite their struggles.

“I thought we battled,” Dwane Casey said. “We made a few mistakes but I thought we challenged shots…I was upset about a few offensive rebounds, how many did they have, 17 offensive rebounds, so that was a problem. We kept it to a low percentage, so there was a lot of opportunities, but now you’ve got to get bodies.”

Things were decidedly prettier in the second, as Norman Powell attacked a corner closeout, kicked to the opposite corner, and the ball swung to C.J. Miles for a three, then Delon Wright got going with a Manu Ginobili tribute Euro-step and a three of his own. Toronto grew sloppy on the defensive end, a rarity for the all-bench group, fouling jump shooters twice in short order to help San Antonio stay even, even as the Raptors got out to a likewise uncharacteristically strong start from three (including a Pascal Siakam triple!). Those were five precious points in a game where scoring was at such a premium.

The pace of the game picked up with the starters re-entering. The sexiness did not, however, and both sides let their transition offenses get a little frenetic, exacerbating the first-half turnover issues. Aunoby continued a tough offensive stretch, in particular, and as a team the Raptors were shooting 42 percent by the end of the half. Still, they took a seven-point lead into the break on the back of a nice Valanciunas floater on the dive and a buzzer-beating DeRozan floater. Mostly, though, it was their defense that built them that lead – the Spurs shot 32.6 percent for the half and hit just two triples, a consistent problem for them on the road so far this season.

Gregg Popovich had little patience for a potential Raptors pull-away, calling a timeout less than two minutes into the third quarter after a raucous 4-0 Toronto run. The mini-run eventually pushed them out to a 13-point lead, as it took San Antonio nearly four minutes to get on the board in the half. The Spurs, Aldridge in particular, were feeling themselves a bit from there, and the game shifted into more of an era-appropriate back-and-forth in terms of scoring.

Aldridge was an issue, pouring in 12 in the quarter after a terribly inefficient first half, including a personal 8-0 run late in the frame, and Raptors not named Valanciunas had a tough time with him inside here, though that proved an aberration for the night as a whole. Valanciunas, by the way, was great responding to that challenge, but Aldridge quickly out-muscled the Raptors’ bench bigs when Valanciunas came out. Out of a timeout, the Raptors adjusted little on that front, the low-energy slide continuing. Aldridge then ended his dominant 12 minutes by erasing a Pascal Siakam spin move. Only Miles picking off a pass and going the distance with it kept Toronto up three entering the fourth.

“Physicality. Got real physical with him,” DeRozan said of Valanciunas’ defense. “Made everything he did tough. From there that’s all you can hope for and hope that a great player like Aldridge misses. He did a great job on that.”

The all-bench group hung around that mark despite getting in their own way a bit. Siakam wasn’t playing his best game of the year yet ironically hit a second three. Miles was cold from outside and got fouled inside. Dejounte Murray got free on a back cut and Powell recovered to block him in the paint. It went like that for over three minutes before Lowry mercifully returned, the lead still at three, with a sense of a squandered opportunity of sorts. The Spurs brought Aldridge back in shortly after, and the Raptors countered with Valanciunas for the stretch run, decidedly the right call on this occasion.

Lowry, DeRozan, and Valanciunas reset the tone in the middle of the quarter, the former two hitting tough buckets to regain control. Ibaka soon joined them, as Casey opted to go with the starters, Wright in place of Anunoby, to close, the correct choice here. The Raptors got away with leaving Patty Mills open for a pair of 3-point attempts, otherwise locking in on defense to close out, especially at the frontcourt positions – Valanciunas stayed steady and Ibaka really ratcheted up his defense after a poor start to the game, making him a positive on a four-point offensive night. Lowry missed what could have been a back-breaking three, only for Valanciunas to come up with the offensive rebound and get rewarded out of a timeout with a tremendous DeRozan pass for a bucket on the roll.

The stars closed it out from there, as DeRozan finished a Euro-step against Kyle Anderson in transition, scored on a mismatch against Mills (the play alignment was a little odd but produced matchup they wanted), then found Lowry out of a trap at the elbows for a free-throw line floater. San Antonio got a last gasp of life when Valanciunas was whistled for an illegal screen on an inbound set, Bryn Forbes hit a huge three, and DeRozan missed a pair of free throws to ice it. The Raptors managed to defend a final transition push well, though, and a potential game-tying heave didn’t get off in time (and missed, anyway).

It’s a quality win and a nice close-out, even with the Spurs down three players. The Raptors’ defense was pristine outside of their defensive rebounding, holding San Antonio to 34.1-percent shooting and a paltry 89 points per-100 possessions. That’s a good night against most anyone, even if they’d prefer not to surrender 17 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points. They’d likewise have prefered a more sound offensive showing, with the team shooting 5-of-17 on threes that weren’t from Lowry, shooting 40 percent overall, and struggling to get to the line. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but it’s a win against the Spurs and a mostly successful close-out in a tight game, plus more reps in a playoff-type atmosphere.

“We’re going to have a lot more of them,” Casey said. “We did some good things, but we also too shot ourselves in the foot a few times, and we’ve gotta make sure we’re under control and understand what we’re doing, understand who we’re guarding, what the situation, time, score, situation, to close out games like this. We’re going to see a lot more like that than you are any other type game right now.”

A quick trip to Minnesota tomorrow to play a rested Timberwolves team has danger written all over it, especially with four starters playing 30 minutes or more and Lowry and DeRozan playing 35 and 36, respectively. If the Raptors can defend like this against an offense slightly ahead of theirs in the rankings, it’ll be a pretty successful weekend.

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