Siakam and Powell back | DeRozan wins this round; stays classy | Errr….another bad loss?
Four — Confusing: Then again, the Raptors should have never been in a position to scrap it out in a close game if Nick Nurse made the right adjustments. Gregg Popovich had the Spurs play zone against Toronto’s bench, and that changed the momentum of the game. The Raptors couldn’t buy a basket and didn’t even have a coherent plan as to solving the zone, and all those misses turned into run-out situations for the Spurs. Having Marc Gasol back as a playmaker in the middle of the floor will solve things, as will the return of their most dependable shooter in Fred VanVleet, but even still Nurse had more than enough pieces to get it done, but instead he stuck with his bench and it cost him the game.
Siakam’s return was felt immediately. It was not about DeRozan in any way, but it’s a role the Raptors have had an unquestioned go-to scorer to fill for the entirety of this era. DeRozan ceded it to Kawhi Leonard, and this year was about Siakam seeing whether he could take it on. Things were going mostly well early on, with the understandable bumps and blips of a young player taking on such an increased load. If there were ever momentary doubts as to Siakam’s importance in that role, it was obvious in the 11 games he missed. Yes, that was exacerbated by Marc Gasol and Norman Powell simultaneously being sidelined, along with Matt Thomas and Fred VanVleet for some of that time. And yes, Lowry took on the primary scoring load in such a way that he’s almost a no-doubt six-time All-Star at this point.
With Siakam back, though, everything was coming easier, the degree of difficulty turned down with extra creators, shooters and playmakers. Powell was back, too, and took a turn in the third quarter, having his own mini-takeover opposite one of his former mentors. Powell hit consecutive 3s during a pull-away run that led to consecutive Gregg Popovich timeouts.
And then things unraveled.
Siakam and Powell were not cure-alls. Gasol, who should return soon, and Fred VanVleet, who might not, remain out, and those two are important playmakers and connectors, the type of players who further simplify the game for the team’s role players. Their returns will allow Nurse more flexibility with lineup staggering, so the Raptors don’t have to play 11 minutes of an all-bench lineup in the future. (They do not have to do that, though minutes restrictions for the returners complicates rotations.) Those groups played spirited defence but can use one or two of the four primary creators — Lowry, VanVleet, Siakam and Gasol — to make the offence flow more smoothly. Siakam seeing minutes at centre is a wrinkle in the interim, but transitional lineup options and closing lineup options expand dramatically with Gasol and VanVleet in the fold. Those are not excuses in a very winnable game, one that saw the Raptors turn away from optimization at several junctures.
There were also the sorts of bumps you might expect working two players back into the rotation. Siakam had rusty stretches, with short legs on his jumper and inconsistent defence. Powell was noticeable on only one end. Legs seemed tired all over in the fourth quarter, with the Raptors going five minutes between points and clunking against the zone as the Spurs stormed back to erase an 18-point deficit. (Siakam and Powell also, apparently, can’t prevent the Patrick McCaw overexposure. Alas.) What started as the rare ineffective Lowry-and-bench unit slowly worked starters back in and saw things grow only worse, a lone Powell highlight briefly stopping a 17-0 run that would escalate to 25-4, putting the Raptors in a seven-point hole in the closing minutes.
As part of a 15-0 run between the third and fourth, the Spurs came back from as much as 18-down to take a one-point lead with 6:34 to go in the fourth and then extended that lead to seven before the Raptors took a timeout with 3:35 left to play.
Siakam was shaky during this stretch, picking up three fouls in less than a minute.
After the timeout, Powell hit a corner three-pointer with 1:43 left to play just after Kyle Lowry came down and hit an above-the-break three to pull the Raptors within three. In the immediate ensuing Raptors possession, Serge Ibaka hit his own top-of-the-key triple to tie the game for Toronto at 100-100.
Siakam, who was 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter, then drew a foul on DeRozan with 41.3 to play, but continued to struggle, missing the first free throw, but then drilling the second to put the Raptors up 101-100.
Unfortunately for Toronto, Bellinelli hit a three to then put the Spurs up 103-101 with 28.8 left, forcing the Raptors to then foul DeRozan with 9.3 to play, who then put the Spurs up by four.
Siakam had an opportunity to tie the game back up with 19.2 remaining, but saw a point-blank lay-up attempt lip out, an indication that he may not be all the way back like he was trending towards in the first quarter.
Lowry hit a three-pointer with 4.8 seconds left to draw the Raptors within one again. With four seconds left to play, the Raptors fouled Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He missed both free throws, but without any timeouts remaining all the Raptors could muster was a desperation three-point attempt from Siakam racing down the floor and missing as the buzzer sounded.
For the first 30 minutes or so, it looked as if the Raptors wouldn’t have a problem with the Spurs, who have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Toronto in the span of a week — with the latter two victories coming on the road — and are percentage points behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But after Toronto took a 74-56 lead with 4:16 to go in the third quarter, the Spurs outscored the Raptors 49-30 the rest of the way, including a 27-4 run in the fourth, to stun Toronto three weeks after the Raptors came back from 30 points down to beat the Dallas Mavericks.
That this loss comes just five days after the Raptors blew a 14-point lead at home against the Portland Trail Blazers only made it sting more.
“We stopped playing,” said Kyle Lowry, who had 16 points and 15 assists. “We stopped being aggressive. We stopped being assertive. They got more aggressive. They got faster, and we missed shots too. A lot happened, and it was all spiraling downhill.
“[We were] just not playing with the extreme confidence that we should have been. Not getting defensive stops and kind of playing lackadaisical.”
One person who wasn’t lackadaisical in that second half was former Raptor DeMar DeRozan, playing in his second game back in Toronto since he was traded in exchange for Kawhi Leonard 18 months ago. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the last time the Raptors lost a game after leading by as many as 18 points was last season against the Detroit Pistons in Toronto, which marked ex-Raptors coach Dwane Casey’s first game back against his former team.
DeRozan scored 22 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, with 18 of them coming after the Spurs fell behind by 18 in the third, including a slam dunk right over Raptors forward Chris Boucher.
“They threw a different look at me that no one threw this year, kind of corralling me, trapping me,” said DeRozan, who had a game-high 25 points to go with eight rebounds and four assists. “So it’s kind of like Floyd Mayweather: first couple of rounds you feel it out, and attack after that.
“Once you have that confidence, no matter if you have a slow start, you know you’re not gonna get down on yourself and get frustrated. You know it’s gonna come back around. It goes a long way. You can tell when guys have it.”
The implication that he has it right now was clear, and correct. The Spurs have beaten the Bucks, Celtics and Raptors on the road over the past seven games, an impressive stretch that might go a long way toward keeping the Spurs intact through the trade deadline. The eighth seed in the Western Conference is not much to get excited about, but the Spurs have not been in the business of accepting the inevitability of losses for 23 years, and they are now just percentage points behind inexperienced Memphis for the spot. Mostly, DeRozan credits his and his team’s improvement to increased comfort for everybody involved.
Perhaps that means the discussions about an extension between the longtime Raptor and the Spurs could actually result in a deal getting done — DeRozan has a player option for $27.7 million, which he might opt out of if there is a multi-year arrangement to be reached. If DeRozan is to stay, it will continue to be an awkward fit: He, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White — the team’s three most prominent perimeter ballhandlers — are all lacking as long-distance shooters. Murray and White are 23 and 25, while DeRozan is 30. There is only so much creative control, and money for that particular skill set, to go around, especially when shooting does not accompany it.
Popovich might have unintentionally undercut his own mission by stating that taking and making a fair share of 3-pointers is essential to winning a bunch of games in the NBA. On Sunday, for instance, the Spurs shot 19 more free throws than the Raptors and needed all of them to overcome a deficit of 10 made 3-pointers and 16 attempts.
To Popovich’s point, though, it seems like willing DeRozan to be a different offensive player is silly at this point. Besides, it has been defence, not offence, that has been the Spurs’ problem when they have had one this year, and that is the area where DeRozan continues to be the most problematic. DeRozan was on the floor as the Raptors stalled out in the fourth quarter, sure, but it was a zone defence that drove the home team’s struggles. That is generally not sustainable over the course of many games or even entire individual games.
Which is why you have to wonder if DeRozan will transition to a sixth-man type whether he is with the Spurs or some other team as his career gets further into its back half.
To DeRozan’s credit, he wasn’t trying to force the issue despite going up against his former team. He was making the right basketball plays, but his teammates were failing to knock down the shots necessary to force Nick Nurse into switching up his defensive strategy. This game was giving me flashbacks of the Spurs from two seasons ago when the offense would come to a complete stop anytime teams started trapping LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. DeRozan is the main reason the Spurs have sported the second best offense over the past ten games, and it is a bit concerning to see how a good defense can expose the Spurs’ lack of playmakers in the starting lineup outside of DeRozan.
As great scorers often do, DeRozan refused to be stymied for an entire game. He broke free for ten points over the final four minutes of the third quarter, but the Spurs still found themselves down by 13 heading into the fourth quarter.
To start the fourth quarter, the Spurs — who are now at the cutting edge of modern NBA basketball — implemented the one thing teams lean on when trying to mount large comebacks. No, not a barrage of desperation three point attempts. That was so last season. The Spurs actually only made three three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Spurs started the fourth quarter by switching to a zone defense.
Yes, that’s right, the dreaded zone defense. In an era of analytics, NBA teams have designed offenses around ball movement and shooting, two things that typically stop a zone defense dead in its tracks. I consider the zone to be a last resort death sentence, but maybe that’s because I don’t consider the Spurs to have the personnel required for playing strong zone defense.
In all fairness, despite the way modern NBA offenses are built, zone defensive possessions have actually increased in each of the past three seasons. As we saw against the Raptors, it can catch teams off guard when executed properly. The Spurs completely flipped the script on the Raptors, becoming the aggressors on defense and forcing the Raptors to live or die by the three. After trading a few baskets to start the fourth quarter, the Spurs went on a 17-0 run to take their first lead since the beginning of the game.
How this situation created itself once again for the Raptors is easy enough to explain. After a hot start from Siakam, whose 12 first quarter points paced Toronto to a comfortable lead, the Raptors fell into a couple of familiar patterns. In 38 minutes, Kyle Lowry once again fired up a lot of threes (12 in total), on his way to a 16-point, 15-assist night. His veteran pal Serge Ibaka went to work down low, leading the team with 21 points and 14 rebounds. But if Toronto’s leading scorer is Ibaka, sorry to say, that’s usually a bit of a problem. On the plus side, his contributions were met by Powell, whose return to the lineup was smooth; he had 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting and for the most part did not look rusty at all. As for Siakam, well, he managed just three more points for the rest of the game.
As that ominous tone suggests, the flow of the game eventually got choppy for Toronto. While they were able to generate far more threes than the Spurs (48 to 32) and hit far more of them too (17 to 7), it somehow didn’t put the game out of reach for San Antonio. Thanks to DeRozan’s 25 points and his craftiness at getting to the line — a skill we know well — the Spurs were able to hang around and make a push in the third quarter. Yes, the Raptors lead got as big as 18 in that very frame, but it also saw Toronto expose themselves again with lineups that continue to get them into trouble.
From both the end of the first and into the second, and again from third to fourth quarters, the Raptors played all-bench units that featured Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, and even a little bit of Oshae Brissett. Against a savy team like the Spurs, this group suddenly had to find a way to bust a zone defense. And once again they mostly looked overwhelmed in the attempt. McCaw was a -18 in his 19 minutes, Davis went 0-for-6 despite being perhaps the most dynamic offensive player of the bunch, Thomas canned a couple of threes but couldn’t do much else, Hollis-Jefferson missed a gaggle of shots at the rim, and poor Boucher had his soul snatched by DeRozan on a brutal dunk. These minutes didn’t overtly decide the game — the Spurs did their best to hand the result back to Toronto at times too — but they seemed to warp the Raps’ overall energy.
This, admittedly, feels a bit like punching down. We can’t necessarily blame the Raptors loss on, say, Davis missing all his shots, or McCaw putting together another run of blank minutes — or at least we can’t blame them anymore. Yes, they did those things, and they hurt, but the Raptors are supposed to then turn to their stars — Lowry, Ibaka, Powell, and especially Siakam — to turn things around. For much of the rest of the fourth, it was that group (plus Anunoby) who let the Spurs go on a 17-0 run and eventually take a 9-point lead into the final 2.5 minutes of the game. That the Raptors were just good (or lucky) enough to hit three straight 3s — one each from Lowry, Powell, and Ibaka (a classic no, no, no, yes attempt) — to make things interesting again suggests once again how good the Raptors are when they really put their efforts together.
If it was payback for a tough loss back here in his first return a year ago, DeRozan was too classy to say.
“You always want to start off fast, but they threw a different look at me that no one threw this year, kind of corralling me, trapping me, so it’s kind of like Floyd Mayweather: first couple of rounds you feel it out and attack after that,” DeRozan said post-game.
The Raptors did a great job of getting the ball out of DeRozan’s hands through the first half and into the second, but the Spurs adjusted getting him back into the middle of the floor and making it tougher to trap him. Once there DeRozan used his first quick step to get into the lane and get going downhill against a Raptors squad that had no answer for him after that point.
The turning point was probably a crowning dunk on Chris Boucher, who was put on a poster for really the first time this year.
From that point on, DeRozan had that familiar scowl we remember so much from his Toronto days when it would take him to another level.
DeRozan clearly still has a place in his heart for Toronto and the teammates that still play here. He was in the Raptors locker room post game making the rounds and interrupting media scrums with the likes of Pascal Siakam to give his old teammate a hug.
DeRozan had Siakam spinning or stepping out of the lane in the third and fourth quarters as he made straight-line drives to the tin basically daring anyone to get in his way.
But DeRozan also had some very nice things to say about Siakam post-game.
“Pascal was one person who worked his ass off every single day,” DeRozan said of his former teammate who was playing in his first game after a 11-game absence. “I can attest to that, I seen it. He went down to the G-League, played extremely hard, like he wanted it. He started for us the majority of his rookie year and he was completely raw and to be able see where he’s at now, definitely will be an all-star, it’s an honour to see a guy like that grow — coming into the league and being one of the best players at his position now.”
The Raptors led by as many as 18 points before the fourth quarter, when they were outscored 36-22 and outdone in every major statistical category. The Spurs’ rebound was led by former Raptor DeMar DeRozan, who is familiar with putting on a show at Scotiabank Arena.
For the Spurs, the 105-104 victory was payback for the last-minute Raptors win that spoiled DeRozan’s first trip back to Toronto last February.
“We stopped playing,” said the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry, who produced a season-high 15 of Toronto’s 30 assists to go with 16 points. “We stopped being aggressive. We stopped being assertive. They got more aggressive. They got faster and we missed shots, too …A lot happened and it was all spiralling downhill.”
The Raptors defence held DeRozan — who arrived having played some of the best basketball of his career over his previous 10 games — in check in the first half. DeRozan and another former Raptor, Rudy Gay, had just seven points between them at the break. But they combined for 33 points in the second half, when the Spurs scored 62 in all to steal a road victory.
It was reminiscent of last Tuesday’s 101-99 loss to Portland, in which the Raptors held Blazers star Damian Lillard to two points in the first half before watching him go off for 18 in the second.
When the Raptors won the NBA title last June DeMar DeRozan was a bit conflicted. But it sounds like his friendship for his former teammates carried the day over any resentment about being dealt away.
“I was happy for all them guys I played with. I think every single guy on that team will tell you they had a text from me as soon as they got to their phones after, congratulating them, being happy for them,” DeRozan said before playing against Toronto with the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night.
“I think I talked to everybody that night they won, I was just happy for them. It’s an opportunity that players playing in this league don’t get, and to be connected to those guys and to this country, to see them do that, I was definitely happy for them.” DeRozan indicated that it took some time to push aside any feelings of being left out and to appreciate his significant contributions to helping the franchise build itself up (not to mention being good enough that the Spurs would swap Kawhi Leonard for him).
“I mean, after a while (he felt some pride). In the moment you’re like ‘damn.’ Damn. There’s never no ill feelings toward anything, we all . . . sure if (someone else) gets a raise, you’d be like ‘Damn I want a raise too,’ right? So that’s all it is, you just try to go out there and put yourself out there with those guys that you had a relationship, feeling that feeling. That’s all it was,” DeRozan said.
DeRozan was feted once again by a sellout crowd at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday evening when he arrived — with his usual iconoclastic persona — for his only visit of the season with the San Antonio Spurs.
There’s an argument to be made that the 30-year-old has never been playing better and statistics would bear that out. He’s one of just two players in the NBA averaging 20 points or more on better than 50 per cent shooting from the field while also dishing out five assists and getting five rebounds a game. The other? Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, and that’s heady company.
“You know, at some point I always figure it out,” he said. “Always figure out some way, somehow. I don’t know how.”
DeRozan got off to a slow start — just three points in the first half — but was instrumental in a late Spurs charge. He had 22 points in the second half and dished off to Marco Belinelli for an open three-pointer that gave San Antonio a 103-101 lead with 28 seconds left. And when Pascal Siakam missed a shot at the rim to tie, DeRozan iced the game at the free-throw line with two foul shots to seal San Antonio’s 105-104 win.
But still, there are detractors and those who point at perceived flaws. DeRozan doesn’t shoot three-pointers, as if that’s the be-all and end-all of the game today. He doesn’t make a high percentage of the ones he does take and that’s a flaw.
It’s poppycock. And it used to eat at him more than it does.
“Yeah, you know what you’re capable of doing and how much you work on your craft, and how good you are and the time you put in,” he said. “The people who don’t see that, they question you and that’s kind of frustrating until you get in a position to show otherwise.”
The basketball people most important to DeRozan are his teammates, and none of them have ever been concerned about what he doesn’t do because they are too reliant on what he can do. And if getting 25 points, or 30, while making it to the free-throw line a dozen times a game is what he does, great.
“I guess he gets to his comfort zone, right, and he’s really, really good at that,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “It’s like trying to ask a great classical pianist to play something else and they don’t really want to. I don’t know, he’s certainly at a super-high level for what he does.”
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