Takeaways: Bench continues to shine as starters struggle in Raptors loss

Toronto Raptors forward C.J. Miles (0) reacts after he missed a shot during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Toronto Raptors fell back to earth on Monday night. After winning their first two games of the 2017-18 season at home by a combined 51 points— and scoring the NBA’s second-most points in the process— their first game on the road had a decidedly different feeling.

Having demolished the lowly Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto faced its first true test of the campaign against the San Antonio Spurs, who are now 3-0 after beating the Raptors 101-97.

Despite an off-night from a handful of key Raptors like Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, this was a close game throughout thanks to another impressive performance from the team’s second unit.

Jakob Poeltl in particular had himself a game, grabbing 12 boards and swatting three blocks while posting a team-best plus-13. The second-year big man seized the opportunity with Jonas Valanciuans out of the lineup and a forgettable night from starting centre Lucas Noguiera.

Still the Raptors were outclassed down the stretch by the Spurs, who appeared confident as ever as they erased a six-point Raptors lead late in the fourth quarter thanks to another solid game from LaMarcus Aldridge, who shone again in Kawhi Leonard’s absence, and an eye-opening night from second-year point guard Dejounte Murray.

No real reason for worry for the Raptors, who played hard and lost to a better team.

Battle of the boards
The Raptors were wiped off the glass, out-rebounded 56-33 by San Antonio. Serge Ibaka managed just four boards and was a non-factor defending the rim. Toronto was slow on rotations and out-worked under the glass from the opening tip. Poeltl, as mentioned, was the lone exception, but no other Raptor managed more than five rebounds.

The Spurs bullied Toronto around the hoop, posting 12 blocks as five players grabbed seven rebounds or more. The leading rebounder? Murray, San Antonio’s starting point guard and the 29th pick of last year’s draft, grabbed a game-high 15 boards using his size and reach to his advantage.

Saved by the bench
Powell followed a two-point showing on Saturday night with six points on 2-7 shooting (including 0-3 from deep) against the Spurs. He did manage to nab three steals— including stripping the ball on a Spurs inbound at the end of the first half and nailing a floater at the buzzer that was ultimately waved off by the referees— but he failed to make a real impact in this one.

DeMar DeRozan, on the other hand, was the Raps leading scorer with 28 points, and was typically effective getting to the rim and drawing in to help defenders. Generally that’s a formula that, when the Raptors are moving the ball with purpose, should result in more open looks for the likes of Powell. But against a very disciplined Spurs defence he had a man in his face with virtually each attempt from distance.

While Lowry’s three assists were more than he’d registered in either of the two games versus San Antonio last season, that low total speaks to his struggles on Monday while primarily being guarded by Murray. Lowry was 3-11 from the field, 2-8 from deep and wasn’t able to assert himself.

Ibaka was a non-factor on the glass, and his four rebounds were accompanied by a total of zero blocks, although he was one of four Raps in double-digit scoring with 13 points including a pair of threes. He was outplayed by his matchup throughout most of the evening and his 4.5 rebounds per game will have to improve— especially with Valanciunas out of the lineup with an ankle injury.

Lowry, Powell, Ibaka… The Raptors need dependable, game-changing outings from all three to reach their potential as a team, particularly in a questionable Eastern Conference, and they haven’t gotten that yet this season. But there’s almost a strange sense of comfort in knowing that major pieces of the starting lineup can have off-nights and the Raptors can still compete with a team like San Antonio thanks to their newfound depth and the solid performance from their second unit.

The impact of having a shooting threat like Miles on the floor— a boost that, ironically, the starting lineup would really benefit from— along with Wright’s ability to slice and dice through defenses to find teammates, and Poeltl’s tenacity and ability to be in the right place at the right time (and make the right decision) has made the Raps bench the most pleasant surprise of the season so far.

It was that unit, along with rookie OG Anunoby and second-year guard Fred VanVleet, that gave the Raptors their biggest lead in the second half, a six-point cushion in the fourth that lasted roughly one minute until San Antonio called a timeout and regained the lead. When the Raptors starters returned, however, the Spurs lead grew larger as they put this one away like a 60-win team would.

And this happened
After an errant elbow sent from Aldridge to near Lowry’s head in the dying minutes, the Spurs big man and Ibaka, the Raptors de facto enforcer, exchanged words and some playful shoving.

While he’ll be relied on to stretch the floor to create space and hit shots, as well as protect the rim, this is a role that Ibaka relishes. In the newest season of Sportsnet’s Know Your Raptors, the team is asked who is most likely to start and stop a fight (Spoiler: virtually every player says Ibaka, based off last season’s skirmish with the Bulls’ Robin Lopez, is the most likely to start a fight). When Ibaka is asked who’s most likely to stop a fight, he answers, “Me,” before quickly adding “And I can start one, too, easily.”