Let it sink in for a moment that the Toronto Raptors are leading the Atlantic Division of the National Basketball Association.
Stampler admits his Thunder errors
Thinking they were doomed without James Harden was a bit of an exaggeration on my part. Kevin Durant is still good. So is Russell Westbrook. Serge Ibaka keeps getting better. And they have a bench now? That was supposed to be our thing.
The Atlantic, or as we will heretofore be referring to it as, the Titanic Division, is an abhorrent mess. Populated by a team that many thought might've challenged for the worst team of all time (the Philadelphia 76ers), two supposed "contenders" who have thus far shown only the ability to contend for League's Most Dysfunctional Team (Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks) and two teams that many believed would at least try to tank their way into the Top 5 of the most stacked draft in a decade (Boston Celtics and the Raptors), the Raptors find themselves in the strange position of leading a division simply because they play compentent basketball with a reasonable amount of verve.
And coming off a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was somewhat easy to see why the Raptors hold a half game lead over the Boston Celtics. The Raptors sit at 11-15, yet the fight they put into a road back-to-back against the Thunder and the Spurs should be commended. Not only did they shock the OKC crowd, they very nearly sent a sleepy Spurs crowd home similarly shocked and disappointed.
But these are the Spurs, who only lose to good teams. Solidly beaten by the Thunder on Saturday night, Gregg Popovich decided to try some new things with his rotations against the Raptors, throwing things against a wall to see what might stick in a few months when Danny Green has gone cold again. The result was a sloppy game that played right into the hands of the feisty Raptors. Marco Belinelli, inserted into the starting lineup despite no injury to Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, looked lost trying to gel with an offense that is much more structure and precise execution oriented than the more frequently madcap, freeform-ish Foreign Legion Marco has been used to playing with in his time as a Spur. Pop said after the game that his inclusion had nothing to do with Danny Green's cold shooting; it was merely an experiment with a new look for the offense. I'm sure we'll see more of Marco as a starter, or playing with the starters, in the future. But for the time being it seems that Marco is best suited getting his engine going paired with Manu.
Two more odd rotations featured Tiago Splitter and Danny Green playing predominant minutes in the second quarter with the reserves. This didn't work particularly well for Green, who struggled when receiving the ball from Manu Ginobili or Patty Mills, never getting the rhythm of the catch and shoot with that group. Tiago, however, fared better. Enough time was spent writing about Tiago as the Spurs best big man during Tim's early season siesta, but it's worth noting here how much better Tiago seemed than all the other big men on the floor in the second unit. Earlier in his career, Tiago could get caught playing down to bench rotation bigs - no longer. He was assertive and crashed the boards, and either is or just appears to be, stronger in the post.
For three quarters the Spurs couldn't shake the Raptors, a feeling that the Thunder must recognize all too well from the night before. It never felt like the Spurs were entirely losing control of the game, nor did it feel like the Raptors were forcing the Spurs into positions that were more advantageous to the Raps. Moreso it looked like the Raptors simply dragged the Spurs into playing down at their level of sloppy basketball. Guys like Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, noted Spur-killer Greivis Vasquez and interesting prospect Terrence Ross never rose to the occasion of legitimately challenging the Spurs. Lowry consistently got stuck in screens, Vasquez was perplexed by Patty Mills, a point guard half a foot shorter than him and Valanciunas, despite having a ugly/nifty game around the basket and surprising mobility, has a bit of early-career Tiago in him in that he can't stay away from fouling. Yet the Raptors refused to be put away.
We'll get into the specifics a bit later, but the Spurs couldn't extend this lead for the longest time simply because the three-pointer wasn't falling. Sloppy play and inconsistent reffing in the painted area aside, the Spurs were generating looks for their shooters, they were just bricking them. Belinelli countered this off shooting night with a couple promising drives into the paint, and Patty Mills briefly caught fire and turned into Patty Thrills, but the rest of the shooters for the Spurs were stuck in neutral for the majority of this game.
Then Danny Green happened. He won't earn Game MVP for his one quarter of magnificence, but it deserves to be recognized as the best quarter Green has played in a long time. And for Danny Green, a great quarter really means that the #V3RD3 was finally heating up. After going 0-2 in the early going with the second unit, Green caught absolute fire in the fourth, downing his next four threes and largely keeping the lead out of reach of the Raptors. An excellent quarter from Kawhi Leonard helped as well, but when it comes to a game this messy, a spate of threes to cushion a lead is about the best medicine possible.
Grantland Personality/Outdated Reference Machine Bill Simmons likes to talk in the NFL about the "Good Bad Team," or the bad team that should be losing big to quality teams, but never does. We might be looking at the Raptors being that team in the NBA this season. The Spurs are traditionally very susceptible to this type of team because the future-focused Spurs can sometimes lose sight of the meaningless regular season games the Raptors don't think are meaningless at all. Credit should be given to the Spurs for not letting the Raptors sneak up behind them and snatch a win away.
Standard Pop Quote
I can't remember.
-Pop, in response to a question about when the last time the Spurs held practice.
Got to the second quarter before we saw the Coyote's skit of the night. Early in the break a Coyote lookalike came out and handed gifts to children sitting in the front row, only to snatch the gifts away and destroy them a second later. Not until the real Coyote escaped from the ropes holding him backstage did we get an explanation - the Coyote lookalike was actually the Grinch.
It was pretty mediocre, but also far more believable than anything that's happened on Homeland since season one so....
Tony Parker - 26 points, 2 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal, 4 turnovers on 10-19 shooting in 34 minutes
I know, I was surprised by this line too. After a dazzling first rotation that saw Parker torching Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson on screens, Parker looked to struggle through almost the entire rest of this game. His foray's into the paint frequently seemed to lead to turnovers or frustrated shots, and his typical attempt in the 3rd quarter to take control of the game failed on almost every level. Yet there is a 26/8 staring up at you and you realize that even when Tony isn't getting exactly what he wants, he's still going to get his production and help the team. With Duncan taking the first part of this season relatively slowly, it has been quite heartening to watch Parker decide when and how to take over games when they need taking over. He's getting older and his speed around the corners is a quarter step slower than it used to be, but Tony is becoming nearly as wily as Manu Ginobili at finding ways to beat you. And again, in a sloppy game against a scrappy opponent, the best way to win is to just ride the man with the hot hand. Danny Green was that in the fourth, but Tony was that for the whole game.
DeMar DeRozan - 13 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 3 turnovers on 5-16 shooting in 33 minutes
I don't like to focus on an opposing player for LVP, but the Spurs gave a very even keeled effort tonight and I want to grind my axe a little bit on DeRozan. Masai Ujiri, the sorcerer-esque GM of the Raptors, unloaded Rudy Gay earlier this season in an effort to cut salary and start the rebuilding process for the Raptors. Plus Gay was a notorious chucker with little ability to see the floor when he had the ball. I know that Ujiri has put DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry's, name into trade rumors since then, and I would just like to throw my hat in the ring and say DeRozan is borderline toxic on this Raptors team. Lowry is a shoot first point guard, yes, but he at least shows interest in getting into the offense. DeRozan shows no such inclination. He is a frequenter of the MSTPC (More Shots Than Points Club), and tonight he held back the most efficient parts of Toronto's offense: Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Both Ross and Valanciunas are young, inexperienced players who make mistakes all over the court, but both show an acumen for scoring within an offensive system and an ability to pass that DeRozan doesn't. Ujiri already has unloaded two of Toronto foremost chuckers (Gay and Andrea Bargnani) on two astoundingly badly GM'd teams (Sacramento Kings and the Knicks, respectively). I have no idea who he'll convince to take DeRozan, but for the Raptors sake I hope he finds that sucker soon.
By the Numbers
- 5 - the number of people it sounded like were in the stadium during pregame introductions. Very, very quiet AT&T Center until the fourth tonight.
- 17 - Number of consecutive right corner threes Marco Belinelli made in warmups. Lordy.
- 1 - number of points Tim Duncan missed getting his seventh straight double-double by. Bummer.
- 3-15 - The Spurs three point shooting at one point midway through the third. Looking for a reason the Raptors stayed in this one?
- 16 - Offensive rebounds by the Spurs, including 12 in the first half. For a team that is godawful on the offensive glass, that's pretty awesome. To do it against a team that's 11th in Defensive Rebounding, as the Raptors are, is pretty astounding.
- 42 - 105 - Danny Green's three point makes - attempts so far this season, averaging out to exactly 40%. That's accounting for his barrage games (6-9 @ NYK, 5-7 vs. CLE, 4-6 tonight), but those numbers are never a bad thing for a wing who's job it is to shoot threes.
Bird is the Word
Raptors pre Gay trade: 7-12, 101.4 OffRtg, 101.7 DefRtg, -0.3 NetRtg Raptors post Gay trade: 4-2, 103.6 OffRtg, 100.9 DefRtg, +2.7 NetRtg— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) December 24, 2013
@JMcDonald_SAEN Nando not in uniform. Pop has him cleaning up after Cory.— CAM (@unclepoper) December 24, 2013
Not strictly true... still LOL.
I’m such a huge fan of the Tony Parker 3— josh ✈ (@jortle) December 24, 2013
WE DID IT EVERYBODY. KAWHISENBERG.
Odds and Ends
- Watching Kawhi Leonard shooting around before the game with Chip Engelland, I was struck by something that seems obvious in regards to Kawhi's lack of immediate shot movement when making a decision with the ball. When he's trying to decide whether to drive or pull up for a shot, Kawhi protects the basketball in his three point stance by placing the ball on his left or right hip. While this does protect the ball and gives him a quicker drop if he puts the ball on the floor, it means Kawhi has to go a great deal further to pull up and take a jumper. Seems like he was working on this with Engelland. I'm not a shooting coach, I could be totally wrong, but seemed interesting nonetheless.
- Tim Duncan took time out of the perpetually meaningful pregame layup drill tonight to lightheartedly shove Sean Elliott off his stool as he was on camera for Fox Sports Southwest. Just in case you were wondering how serious this game was.
- When Boris Diaw feels like an offensive set has even slightly gone awry and he has the ball, he's going to make a couple of a moves and shoot it. Perhaps this is a sign that the offense is gelling a bit better, that Boris has had to do much less of this compared to earlier in the season.
- Lastly, because OH MY GOD ALL OF THIS.
vs. Houston Rockets (18-11), Wednesday December 25 at 7pm CST: Christmas! The Texas Showdown! SLEEVED JERSEYS! Ok, ok, try and temper the excitement. David Stern subjects the Spurs and Rockets to the lovely fate of having to work on Christmas Day, but seeing as how this is easily the best of the five NBA games being played Wednesday, I'm not going to complain. I will be back to rehash what hopefully is a nice revenge game for the Spurs.