As a 90-second tribute video played moments before tipoff, the tone for Thursday night’s reunion of sorts between the Spurs and Raptors seemed to be set, underlining the intense (and intensely mixed) emotions that fans brought with them to one of the most anticipated games of the season. Every sight or mention of Kawhi Leonard, the man who willed his way out of San Antonio last year, was met with a rain of boos, broken up only by the applause that came with every shot by Danny Green, who was included in the trade that brought DeMar DeRozan to Toronto.
Green knew what to expect in a San Antonio welcome. “I’m going to hope one thing and predict another,” he said when asked during morning shootaround.
It was a fervor that the AT&T Center crowd sustained throughout the night but, as has been a theme in the transformative early months of this season, seemed to shift into a singular, more positive direction as the game wore on. Leonard was still booed to the end, but fans were also reminded that there was still plenty to cheer for in the wake of last summer’s teardown. With each extra pass to the open man, every DeRozan tear drop, LaMarcus Aldridge jumper, or Bryn Forbes three-pointer, the Spurs overwhelmed the league-leading visitors, and showcased a brand of mirthful basketball that continues to propel them up the Western Conference standings.
DeMar DeRozan keyed a 38-19 first quarter for San Antonio, putting up 9 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in just 9 minutes and laying the groundwork for a milestone he never reached north of the border: a triple double. He finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists.
The pass that cinched the feat was an assist to Aldridge off a pick and pop. The Spurs’ big man had another hot-shooting night (10-of-14 from the field) en route to a team-high 23 points. Joined by Forbes (20 points), Derrick White (19) and Rudy Gay (13), the starting lineup combined for 96 points.
DeRozan’s playmaking was already a strength coming into this season, but he’s improved upon it in ways few could’ve expected.
“I had no idea he was that good a passer,” said Gregg Popovich. “He’s been one of our better guys at playing downhill, attracting a crowd and finding teammates. I knew he was a scorer, I knew he was a great teammate and all that sort of thing — high character — but I didn’t know about the passing.”
“I know I can score the ball — I’ve proven that,” said DeRozan, who’s pushed his assists per game to a career-high 6.4. “This is about me wanting to be that guy who makes his teammates better around me, as well . . . For me, it’s just fun getting everybody else rolling.”
How did former Raptor feel after getting this long-awaited game under his belt?
“It was extremely fun,” he said, shrugging off the emotional stakes once attached to the matchup. “Going out there, talking to my old teammates. That’s always fun. But it wasn’t emotional at all for me. It was just a fun game.”
Fun was likely the big takeaway for Spurs fans, as well — even those who’d come in with defaced Leonard jerseys and a focus on booing their lungs out. One star may have left them with months of pent-up emotions, but the man who replaced him is doing his best to keep the positive vibes flowing in San Antonio.
Other notes and quotes . . .
The Spurs’ formula (mostly) at work
The Spurs managed the pace (97.9), limited their mistakes (32 assists to 12 turnovers), made the relatively few three-pointers they took (13 of 27), and, through most of the game, did a good job of not giving the Raptors easy points at the free-throw line. The numbers got a bit skewed in the final quarter (Toronto ultimately attempted 29 FTs), but the Spurs’ overall formula for success was very much in play once again.
Another stellar night for Derrick White
Answering the bell with the assignment of guarding Leonard for most of the game would’ve been enough for the second-year guard. Leonard shot a high percentage, but netted just 21 points after exploding for 45 earlier this week in Utah.
That White complemented it with 19 points and 4 assists is remarkable, continuing to cement his place in the starting lineup. Here’s Gregg Popovich on White:
“Derrick, you know, he’s rising to the challenge. He wasn’t expected to be in this position this season. He’s grown by leaps and bounds every week. With every game he seems to be more confident, making great decisions, and his demeanor is wonderful. The guys trust him out there so I’m really happy for him, he’s doing a fine job.”
Another high for Bryn Forbes
Wresting some of the spotlight from DeRozan was Forbes, who went 6-for-7 from deep for 20 points. The six three-pointers are a new career-high for the sharpshooting guard.
Pop on Kawhi’s reception
“I felt badly about it. Kawhi’s a high-character guy. We all make decisions in our lives, what we’re gonna do in our future. He has that same right as us. I felt badly, in all honesty.”
Kawhi on what he’d like to say to Spurs fans
“Thanks for supporting me, Kawhi, the basketball player. Thanks for the support.”
Kawhi on, uh, media bias?
Kawhi found a scapegoat for all that booing that went on at the AT&T Center Thursday night: "Media does a great job to stir people’s minds and influence them to think a certain way. So I already knew that was going to be by the way the media was.”— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 4, 2019
Lonnie Walker IV makes his (San Antonio) Spurs debut
The 18th pick in the draft finally saw the floor in garbage time, much to the excitement of the crowd and, seemingly, his own, as well. Walker’s attempt to enter the game was deemed premature by the officials and earned the Spurs’ their second delay-of-game warning, resulting in a technical for the Raptors. Still, the rookie was able to stretch his legs, bring the ball up the floor, and knocked down his first career bucket, a three-pointer.