Despite a valiant effort in his first visit to Toronto as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and the team fell short against familiar faces.
For two teams so far apart in distance, the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors have been closely intertwined recently. Of course, the blockbuster trade that brought Raptors legend DeMar DeRozan to the Alamo City created a link, but the narrative runs much deeper following the 120-117 loss in ‘the Six.’
After years of battle in the rugged and physical Southwest Division, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol engaged in a defensive battle that led to a plethora of fouls for both parties. As Derrick White shook off his rust and returned to playing form, Bryn Forbes chased Danny Green around the perimeter while the sniper torched his former team.
Fans awaited DeRozan’s return to Toronto since the moment of his trade because of the intensity and emotion associated with it. The home crowd gave DeRozan a warm welcome and subsequently cheered for the organization’s golden boy throughout the evening.
For all the good times For all you’ve done for this City, for Canada
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 23, 2019
He finished the game with an efficient 23 points on 7-for-12 shooting along with a perfect percentage on nine free throws. He also showed off his improved passing and defensive capabilities by tallying eight dimes, two steals and a block.
It was an excellent game on DeRozan’s part when studying the box score, but his late-game collapse arises man questions for the Spurs moving forward. For as effective as he’s been, DeRozan may not be the right player to take over the game in late-game situations.
Next: DeMar DeRozan is a superstar, but not a natural closer
DeMar DeRozan is a superstar, but not a natural closer
It’s evident that DeMar DeRozan gave his all in his return to Toronto. The 10-year veteran unsurprisingly acted with the upmost class and humility by embracing the city that he called home for his entire career prior to the summer. Professionalism is a natural value of the San Antonio Spurs, making him an appealing fit for head coach Gregg Popovich.
DeRozan was sure to put on a show against his former teammates, breaking out the 360 layup against his pal Serge Ibaka toward the start of the second quarter. His exquisite chain of crossovers and hesitations were on full display throughout the evening. Even in the face of his trade partner Kawhi Leonard, DeRozan managed to draw contact and attack the basket with steam.
While DeRozan played well enough to keep the game close in the fourth quarter, he just couldn’t bring himself to finish the deed. His playmaking remained helpful, setting up Marco Belinelli for a clutch three-pointer with 44.9 seconds remaining. This would prove useful for only a moment as DeRozan turned the ball over to Leonard, who threw down a one-handed spike for the lead.
For as spectacularly talented as he is, DeRozan probably shouldn’t have been the guard to bring the ball up the court. With a red-hot Patty Mills available to handle the ball, the team should’ve allowed their point guard to advance the ball before setting up for a play.
Gregg Popovich is known for putting players in position to succeed, but his primary focus is on maintaining the winning culture in San Antonio. There’s enough evidence to suggest that DeRozan is prone to freeze in clutch situations, but players like Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge have come up clutch in his absence.
Going forward, the team needs to consider putting the ball in Gay’s hands during clutch moments like this. With Leonard hounding DeRozan at the two-spot, Gay could have a chance at an open jumper against either Danny Green or Pascal Siakam.
Next: Jakob Poeltl is playing with emphasis
Jakob Poeltl is playing with emphasis
Now that the All-Star break has come and gone, the San Antonio Spurs need to lock in for their playoff run. Popovich knows that he has a reliable collection of players that have come to understand his offensive sets well. With that in mind, the mastermind behind San Antonio’s multi-decade run of success has learned of new ways to implementing rising stars.
Jakob Poeltl’s return to Toronto was a quiet headline waiting to come to fruition as the 23-year-old finished the night with a loaded stat line in only 17 minutes. His eight points came on perfect shooting on four attempts from the floor including some aggressive slam dunks derived from excellent screens.
Returning to the team that drafted him certainly put some emphasis on his defensive effort. Poeltl asserted his dominance of the paint in his playing time, guarding the rim and using his length to contest opponents at each position. He blocked three shots in the night and added a steal to his final line.
Slammin' and jammin' pic.twitter.com/F9wrdCKd5Q
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) February 23, 2019
Hopefully the Spurs will use this as a turning point for Poeltl, whose inconsistent minutes and production have been a major talking point amongst the community. The third-year center is prone to a defensive lapse or errant shot on occasion but generally makes the most of his time, especially when filling in for Pau Gasol.
Splitting minutes between the two in the latter stretch of the season could be harmful to Poeltl’s effectiveness, it may be best to let him take sole proprietorship of the backup center slot.
Next: The bench mob is in full effect
The bench mob is in full effect
Depth has been immensely important to the success of the San Antonio Spurs in their 2018-19 quest for the postseason. The starting lineup under Pop is fluid, so players are in and out of the starting five regularly based on performance, health and matchups. This is an extremely valuable asset for any coach, let alone one of Popovich’s talent. San Antonio’s narrow loss in Toronto proved to the world that the Spurs are just as deadly as ever, bringing elite talent off the pine to pick up the slack of their starters.
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Sharpshooter Marco Belinelli, who is known to elevate his intensity in the latter stage of the season, exploded for 21 points and six rebounds against the second team he ever played for. Beli nailed five triples on 12 takes and drove hard to the basket on other occasions. His focus over the next 20 games is key to the team’s playoff seeding.
Alongside Belinelli in the bench unit, Davis Bertans and Patty Mills clocked in roughly the same amount of playing time with 27 and 28 minutes respectively. The duo scored 15 points each and combined for 31 points in the contest. Bertans continued to prove the point that he should’ve competed against Stephen Curry in the Three-Point Contest by nailing 4-of-6 threes.
Mills, who has aged into a fiery and consistent floor general off the bench, was influential in holding Kawhi Leonard to 8-for-23 shooting. By sacrificing his body, staying in Leonard’s personal space and predicting his movements, Mills provided some of the best on-ball defense the team had to offer against their former star.
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If the bench unit can ride this wave of momentum into the playoff, the Spurs will be in a position to make some noise in the Western Conference.