Well, that was crucial. The local crowd was bloodthirsty, the Spurs were hellishly aggressive and the Raptors were obviously not ready for the full intensity. Kawhi's ballyhooed return to San Antonio was largely a big old guy, and the Raptors were hit by 1
Slightly overshadowed by Kawhi's return, DeMar DeRozan's first game was against his former team piece in the Toronto Kawhi Gambit. DeRozan quietly had an excellent season in San Antonio – his power efficiency depends on what it was, but he scored career highs in terms of rebound percentage and support ratio as well as rebounds, assists and blocks. Gregg Popovich and DeRozan's teammates talked about DeRozan's back and forth to ease the instincts ahead of the game, which is not exactly what you'd expect from DeRozan's relatively many pedestrians in Toronto. Per Eric Koreen of The Athletic:
"What I did not know is that he is such a good passer, such a willing passer," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Wednesday. "He gets a lot of assists, shoots a lot for the team, and I did not expect that. That's probably what I've learned most about his game. He's been in the league for a long time, he's an all-star. Everyone knows how he could score, but that was new to me.
Whether revenge or just because of a favorable clash, DeRozan had the full package against the Raptors on Thursday night and set his first triple in career at 33 breezy minutes of dominant basketball:
The Spurs are now five games over 500 and are ranked seventh in the laden Western Conference with the fourth-best point difference of the conference. At one point in the first quarter, they had crossed Derrick White against Kawhi at the defensive end, and someone named Bryn Forbes hounded Fred VanVleet, and to understand how thorough they were at that moment to crush the Raptors, I have the Mental Head Count of Stars of San Antonio: DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay. There's another timeline that's very close to our own, where those three poisonous, deadly contracts are on a gritty lottery team, probably the wizards. In our universe, they are indispensable components of a playoff team in the deepest conference in NBA history. They are not much different from what they did then, when most NBA observers had the idea that they were easily interchangeable. My internal clock says Aldridge should be flushed in the meantime, and Rudy Gay has been too ill for the kings lately, and DeRozan should go into the back half of his career as Gerald Henderson of a rich man. Not so!
Kawhi's impending exemption agency is at the forefront of the Raptors' risk when it knocked out two key rotation players, including the team's all-time leading scorer to win it. However, it must be remembered that the Spurs also took a tremendous risk by recapturing a 29-year-old veteran with a 2004 offensive play style rather than swapping a plectrum and "assets" when he expelled a player By this time, the undisputed future was the franchise and one of the best basketball players. They had the chance that DeRozan was not only a moderately efficient one-way shooter benefiting from a razor-sharp Raptors basketball operation, and he was able to incorporate his mid-class, ball-ridden play into one of Aldridge's already more than depressed offense post touches and homosexuality of the mid-range. They had an even greater chance that a team of three players not well known for a strong individual defense could maintain their form and discipline at that end. The chance to save some shiny picks from the bad Kawhi situation was short-sighted until self-sabotage.
And all that happens is that Gay and DeRozan have career years, and the offense is in score per possession near the top of the league, and the Spurs are right back on the hunt in the Western Conference. I do not know how they do that and I'm sure it's about blood rituals and dark magic. But DeRozan is kicking his ass, and it was cool to watch him give the deal to the low-season team. The Raptors were not wrong to complete the deal, but at least for one night they must have felt like it.