I have to admit I was a little worried about this one. Masai Ujiri put together a great trade in the days leading up to the game, getting rid of Rudy Gay, who was having an atrocious season as their offensive centerpiece. The Spurs were on a FIGABABA and I feared the new look Raptors would come out energized and the Spurs would sleepwalk their way to an early deficit that they would never recover from. Fortunately, I was underestimating the Spurs' depth.
The Raptors looked like the more cohesive team to start the game, despite having just undergone a massive transformation. The ball was moving and the touches that would have been squandered in the past were being rerouted to Jonas Valanciunas in the post. The Dinos were also pushing the pace and finding the cracks in the Spurs' secondary transition defense and with Amir Johnson and Big Val hitting from mid-range, their offense was firing on all cylinders. The Spurs' offense, meanwhile, was a series of predictable sequences that inevitably ended with a Duncan jumper. The Raptors' big were controlling the paint against a dubitative Timmy and a severely over matched Ayres, while Demar Derozan was hitting tough shots to drive up the score in the first. Things were looking grim until Manu Ginobili entered the game.
Ginobili connected on a lefty layup after a pretty ball fake and then hit a three to start the comeback, energizing the team like in the old days. But while it was nice to see Manu wearing the cape once again, he was not the only hero of the night. Aron Baynes, who had lost his spot in the rotation and would have likely been inactive had Splitter been healthy, came in and changed the game on offense. Bangers hit a jumper, crashed the offensive boards and finished in traffic, providing the type of inside presence Duncan and Ayres failed to deliver.
Credit should go to Pop as well for the Spurs' awakening, as he understood that the Johnson-Valanciunas duo was too tough to handle without Splitter and went small the rest of the half with Kawhi Leonard at the four. The change forced the Raptors to match and allowed the Spurs to be much more disruptive on defense, especially when the bench was in. After trailing by as much as 14, the Spurs climbed their way back into the game and actually led at the half, 59-53 after a 13-4 Parker-led run.
Things went back to normal to start the second half. The Raptors looked like the talented but inconsistent team they are and the Spurs looked like battle-tested contenders. Aron Baynes started in Jeff Ayres' place and he continued to be a net positive. But while crediting Baynes with anchoring the soaring defense is tempting, what derailed the Raptors' offense was their disdain for what got them that big lead in the first place. The ball stopped going to Valanciunas inside and their execution just wasn't there on pick-and-rolls. The game was there for the taking and the Spurs pounced.
The starters were far from peak level but did enough to hold and stretch the lead a bit before the bench came in and sealed it with a 14-6 run to end the third. It truly is beautiful to see the bench move the ball to find the open man and hustle on both ends of the floor. Baynes and Ginobili continued to lead the way but a more energetic Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills all contributed to the cause and allowed Pop to rest the stars in the fourth quarter by securing a sizeable lead. The über consistent Spurs took care of business and will look to put pressure on Portland by getting a win tomorrow against the lowly Bucks.
- Aron Baynes, you guys. This was Baynes best game as a NBA player, by far, and his biggest contributions surprisingly came on the offensive end. Baynes provided a presence inside that the Spurs were lacking. His screens were as wide (and possibly illegal) as ever. Bangers scored 14 points on 7-9 shooting and pulled down four offensive boards. He also faked a hand-off and darted to the rim for a thunderous dunk. It was glorious and hopefully it nets him another chance in the rotation.
- Stop it. I know a part of you, a little voice inside is saying "if Baynes can play like this, then Splitter is expendable." Stop it. Splitter is so much better on defense it's silly to even consider this. You know how crazy all those "we have Hill. We don't need Parker" comments sound right now? This would basically be the same scenario.
- The starters are still not looking like themselves on offense. The ball sticks too much, the players are not moving as decisively. As a result, it all becomes too predictable and usually ends with either a Duncan jumper or a Parker desperation drive. The wings are not involved at all and it all looks a bit forced, especially when compared to the bench's free flowing offense.
- Manu played a fantastic game. Ginobili had 16 points on ten shots, five boards and nine assists to one turnover. Ginobili went 4-7 from three and is making all of us that got worried about his shooting earlier in the season look silly. Manu might be aging but the magic and the fire are still there.
- Valanciunas is probably going to be a fantastic player, but he needs to be more consistent and learn how to handle his emotions. The Raptors inexplicably went away from him for long stretches and it seemed to bother him. He looked rattled at times and it seemed to rub off on the rest of the team. Having a floor general like Greivis Vasquez on the floor will really help him. Kyle Lowry is much more talented, but he can get tunnel vision at times.
- Amir Johnson is the league's most underrated player. Johnson is an above average defender and rebounder that can score when set up properly. He is a more athletic, less fundamentally sound version of Splitter and whoever gets him, if the Raptors go on a fire sale, will be much improved for having him. Something tells me Masai Ujiri might not be ready to let him go just yet, though.
- Finally, a good game for both Marco Belinelli and Danny Green. It seemed like they've never played well in the same game, but this time around they combined for 26 points, six assists and four rebounds on 4-7 from beyond the arc. If they can provide that type of mistake-free (zero turnovers) scoring punch consistently, it doesn't matter who starts.
- Duncan had a solid game by the numbers, but he struggled at times, especially to start the game, when he missed open jumpers and couldn't contain Valanciunas. He's not back to last season's level yet, but I'm confident he will get there.
- Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard had such weird games. Leonard was blocked at the rim twice trying to dunk and had his (enormous) hands full with Demar Derozan on D. Tony Parker couldn't finish layups in transition and just didn't have any bounce in his step. They still contributed but were not the net positives they usually are. Fortunately, the Spurs are deep enough to win without them bringing their "A" game.
The Spurs will visit the Bucks tomorrow on a SEGABABA for both teams. Splitter is not with the team, so it will be interesting to see who starts next to Duncan. If Duncan plays at all, that is.
For the opponent's perspective, visit Raptors HQ