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Young guns shine, but the Spurs can’t complete the comeback over the Raptors

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The Raptors prevailed in one of the most joyless games of basketball ever played.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs and Raptors had to play a game on Sunday afternoon as news about the death of Kobe Bryant and eight other people trickled its way into the AT&T Center, which was as awful as it sounds. Toronto won 110-106, but it hardly matters.

There won’t be many days that expose how meaningless basketball can be as clearly as this one. The mood at the start of the game could only be described as surreal, since it’s hard to think of a less suitable environment to grieve and process a loss than an NBA arena, with its manufactured excitement designed to overload the senses. The players seemed like they didn’t want to be out there, and the crowd didn’t know how to react. After both teams let the shot clock run out to honor No. 24 in the first two possessions, the ball bounced all the way up to the top of the glass and got stuck up there in the first shot attempt, which felt like a sign from the basketball gods telling us it was too soon to play.

Alas, the world doesn’t stop even when it probably should. The game went on, and the Spurs clearly weren’t ready for it. Both teams’ players looked numb as they sleepwalked up and down the floor, but the Raptors’ were at least hitting their shots. An inspired Pascal Siakam showed why he’s a star by setting a franchise record for points in a quarter with 25, including five three-pointers. With the veterans visibly shaken and the defense looking as porous as it has all season, the Spurs only managed 21 points and trailed by 16 after the first 12 minutes.

The only reason the game wasn’t over at the half after such a lopsided first quarter was the performance of San Antonio’s young players. Derrick White continued his excellent play as of late while Lonnie Walker IV, Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray all contributed on both ends to provide the Spurs the spark they needed to hold on during a time in which no one would have blamed them for giving up and moving on to the next one. Their effort and energy didn’t immediately translate to the scoreboard, but it gave San Antonio a blueprint for a comeback.

Gregg Popovich noticed White’s work and started him in the second half in place of Trey Lyles, who had been eaten alive early on by Siakam. The Spurs went small, but the White-Murray pairing helped make up for it by upping the team’s defensive intensity. Normally the trade off would be an almost crippling lack of spacing, but Murray was feeling it from outside, connecting on three outside shots in the frame while White hit a couple of his own. The barrage of threes fueled a 34-point quarter that would actually make it a game going into the final period, against all the odds.

Unfortunately, as it has been the case all too often this season, the Spurs spent all their energy and good fortune climbing their way out of a hole they had dug for themselves earlier. The Raptors eventually steadied themselves thanks to the play of their veterans and regained control of the game. San Antonio was still in it late, but the usual issues with execution emerged to halt the comeback. DeMar DeRozan managed to tie things up with a minute to go but a bad defensive possession, a missed free throw on the other end and an untimely turnover caused by Kyle Lowry allowed Toronto to escape with a victory.

It’s impossible to be too heartbroken about this loss, mostly because the entire NBA world got a dose of perspective in the most brutal way possible on Sunday, but also because the Spurs’ young guns shined even in defeat on the night in which Pop finally made the decision to trust them. No game in which White and Murray share the floor for long stretches and Walker gets meaningful minutes is a wasted one.

As sad as it was to watch Spurs-Raptors for reasons that had nothing to do with basketball, maybe this is actually the day in which the youth movement really kicks into gear. If it is, at least something good will come out of a game no one enjoyed at the time and will always be painful to look back on.

Game notes

  • The Spurs’ veterans were clearly emotional about the news, which makes sense since they grew up during Bryant’s heyday and played against him. It’s not a surprise that DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay didn’t really perform at the peak of their abilities, but their struggles made it hard for San Antonio to win.
  • Murray and White spent 12 minutes on the court together and the Spurs’ defense was fantastic during their shared time. They won’t always hit their threes like they did against the Raptors, but in small lineups they should be able to coexist on offense. It’s time to try the duo in earnest.
  • Six Spurs had at least two made three-pointers. As a team they had 15 made threes, their fifth most for a game in the season. The problem is nine of those came in the third quarter. More consistent shooting would be huge for San Antonio, but it seems unlikely to come this season.
  • Walker was on the court to close the game. He attacked the basket when the Raptors doubled DeRozan in the final minute and went for a huge dunk on the drive, forcing Toronto to foul. He missed one of his freebies, but just watching him be that aggressive was encouraging.
  • Poeltl had 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in under 14 minutes of playing time. I don’t think there are many better back up centers in the league. It’s too bad he can’t get more minutes.

Next game: @Bulls on Monday

The Spurs will travel to Chicago to take on the Bulls on a SEGABABA. Mediocre and bad East teams inexplicably give San Antonio problems, but it should be a win.