Well that was decisive. The home crowd was bloodthirsty, the Spurs were aggressive as hell, and the Raptors were evidently not ready for all the intensity. Kawhi’s ballyhooed return to San Antonio was mostly a big old dud, and the Raptors were routed, by the score of 125–107.
Overshadowed somewhat by Kawhi’s return was DeMar DeRozan’s first ever game against his former team, as the main outgoing piece in Toronto’s Kawhi gambit. DeRozan has quietly had an excellent season in San Antonio—his scoring efficiency is about what it’s been, but he’s posting career-highs in rebound percentage and assist ratio, and in rebounds and assists and blocks. Gregg Popovich and DeRozan’s teammates talked up DeRozan’s passing and facilitating instincts in the lead up to this game, which isn’t necessarily what you’d expect given DeRozan’s relatively pedestrian assist numbers over much of his career in Toronto. Per Eric Koreen of The Athletic:
“The thing I wasn’t aware of is he’s such a good passer, such a willing passer,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said on Wednesday. “He gets lots of assists, creates a lot of shots for the team, and I wasn’t expecting that. That’s probably the thing that I learned the most about his play. He’s been in the league a long time, he’s been an All-Star. So everybody knows how he could score, but that was new to me.”
Whether fueled by vengeance or just due to a favorable matchup, DeRozan had the full package working against the Raptors Thursday night, posting his first career triple double in 33 breezy minutes of dominant basketball:
The Spurs are now five games over .500 and sit seventh in the loaded Western Conference, with the conference’s fourth-best point differential. At one point in the first quarter they had Derrick White cross-matched on Kawhi on the defensive end, and someone named Bryn Forbes hounding Fred VanVleet, and in order to make sense of how thoroughly they were at that very moment shredding the Raptors, I did a mental head count of San Antonio’s star players: DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay. There’s another timeline, extremely close to our own, where those three are toxic, dead contracts on a dismal lottery team, probably the Wizards. In our universe, they’re indispensable components of a playoff team in the deepest conference in NBA history, doing nothing especially different from what they did back when most NBA observers had the idea that they were easily replaceable. My internal clock says Aldridge should be washed up by now, and that Rudy Gay was recently too crummy for the Kings, and that DeRozan should be settling into the back half of his career as a rich man’s Gerald Henderson. Not so!
Kawhi’s impending free agency sort of foregrounds the risk the Raptors took by trading away two important rotation players, including the team’s all-time leading scorer, in order to acquire him. But it’s worth remembering that the Spurs took a huge risk, too, by taking back a 29-year-old veteran guard with a an offensive style straight out of 2004, rather than draft picks and “assets,” when trading away a player who had up to that moment been the unquestioned future of the franchise and one of the best players in basketball. They took a chance that DeRozan wasn’t just a moderately efficient one-way scorer benefiting from a razor-sharp Raptors basketball operation, and could fit his midrange-heavy, ball-dominant game in an offense already more than a little squeezed by Aldridge’s post touches and Gay’s own midrange tendencies. And they took an even bigger chance that a team featuring three players not exactly known for stout individual defense could maintain their shape and discipline on that end. Turning down the chance to salvage some shiny draft picks out of the bad Kawhi situation appeared, at the time, to be short-sighted to the point of self-sabotage.
And all that’s happening is Gay and DeRozan are having career years, and the offense is back near the top of the league in points per possession, and the Spurs are right back in the hunt in the Western Conference. I don’t know how they do it, and could be convinced that it has to do with blood rituals and dark magic. But DeRozan is kicking major butt, and it was cool as shit to watch him give the business to the team that traded up in the offseason. The Raptors weren’t wrong to make the deal, but for one night, at least, they must’ve felt like it.