SAN ANTONIO, Tex. – In the seconds before the tribute video went up on the scoreboard at the AT&T Center, one large, loud, fan wearing a massive cowboy hat wanted to be clear about expectations:
"Everybody get ready to boo!"
They were and they did.
Until the game started and San Antonio’s new favourite son DeMar DeRozan and his new best buddies dismantled his old team the way a mean kid would a spider.
Then the Spurs fans cheered the cheers of the justified, of those proven right, at least for one night.
The Spurs’ 125-107 win over the visiting Raptors was unequivocal that way. The Spurs gave DeRozan’s old team and Leonard’s new team a thorough butt-kicking. DeRozan’s footprints were everywhere.
“It was fun. It was really fun,” said DeRozan after putting up his first career triple-double in a masterful performance against his old team. “[Playing the Raptors] wasn’t hard at all. I wasn’t nervous, it was really fun. Going out there, messing around with old teammates, messing around with them, it was definitely fun.”
For DeRozan and for the Spurs. Leonard might be wondering what he’s gotten himself into.
In a game where emotions were high and attention was focussed to see who would respond and how, the Raptors came out like it was just another Thursday. Ho-hum, another night on TNT.
“It’s frustrating just because [of the way] we are playing,” said Leonard. “It’s [like] any other game. We want to be better. We want the next game to be able to do the same thing every night that we step on this floor. We want to be a better team. We didn’t do a good job at all.”
Spurs Nation came ready to vent. Whatever Leonard did on his way out of San Antonio, Spurs fans very clearly took it personally.
One of the clips in the video to two long-serving Spurs who helped the franchise win its last title was Leonard hugging the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2014. Leonard was the Finals MVP.
In another he was diving for loose ball in traffic.
Every time they showed his face, the sold-out crowd booed their broken hearts out.
Danny Green? He didn’t have these problems. Every move the current Raptor and former Spur made on video and in real time he was cheered. They chanted his name during pre-game introductions.
Leonard wasn’t nearly as lucky. No – it wasn’t at def-con Vince Carter back to the ACC levels – but maybe it’s hard to get quite that worked up when your team has won five NBA titles.
Leonard claimed it was expected and he was unbothered: “I embraced it and enjoyed the moment and it’s only going to make me better.”
It’s cliché to say there is electricity in the building on nights like this when pure passion breaks through the inevitable tedium that is part of a long 82-game schedule.
But this one was beyond that.
This was a fallen high voltage line snaking back and forth across the pavement, sparks flying. But it was the Spurs who caught fire. The Raptors only got burned.
And in case anyone forgot who really had reason to be aggrieved at how everything transpired in the off-season, DeRozan made sure to remind the whole damn planet.
“I mean, you’ve got to thrive in moments like that,” said DeRozan who heard some ‘MVP’ chants during the game. “You have to love to play in that type of atmosphere whether it’s at home or on the road. It kind of fuels you and it kind of gets you going. That’s what makes it so fun.”
The Raptors made the Leonard-DeRozan trade because they believed – and almost any statistical or anecdotal evidence would support that belief – that in Leonard they were getting the best player in the deal, one of the very best in all of basketball.
That might be true.
But on Thursday in San Antonio, DeRozan was the player in complete command of his game. He was the one elevating his teammates and levitating the building.
It was spectacular stuff and not at all unfamiliar other than DeRozan was going nuclear in silver-and-black, not red-and-black. He was brilliant, his 21 points, 14 rebound and 11 assists telling only part of the story.
He did his best work before halftime, becoming the first Spur since Tim Duncan to have at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the first 24 minutes on his way to his statistical milestone that has been 10 years in the making.
“I told him it was about time,” said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. “I did. I just told him. I said ‘it’s about time you had a triple-double.”
Answer the bell? It was the best first half – statistically – DeRozan might have ever played on the way to one of his most compete games ever. Not likely a coincidence although he was helped by a Raptors defensive approach — the Spurs shot 55.3 per cent from the floor and 48.1 per cent from deep — that hasn’t been seen since LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were running a lay-up line against the Raptors in the playoffs. Only this time DeRozan was playing the part of LeBron.
At one point in the first quarter DeRozan found himself isolated by Serge Ibaka inside the three-point line, naturally. The Raptors all-time leading scorer shaked and baked, luring the over-matched Ibaka into a foul, after which DeRozan let a floater go that went so high it was like the ball itself was pausing at the top of score clock to give the finger to anyone who thought trading him was a good idea.
It was a trick shot that was as derisive and arrogant as any dunk he could throw down – although there was an emphatic one of those, too.
But as DeRozan’s game was screaming from the rooftops, Leonard — the strong silent one — was struggling to find his voice. And worse his supporting cast – minus Kyle Lowry who missed his ninth game in his last ten with a wonky back – wasn’t much of a chorus.
The Spurs sent two and three defenders at Leonard routinely, safe in the knowledge that no one had shown up to help him with the heavy lifting. They packed the pain and barely waved at open three-point shooters.
Why bother? The Raptors have proven this year that they are not a dangerous three-point shooting team — at 34.1 per cent from three they rank 25th in the NBA — and against the Spurs they were just 6-of-30.
“To start the game, two, three, four wide-open threes that go in and out. They come down and get a three, and-1, three, and-1, and that’s just a recipe for disaster,” said Raptors point guard Fred Van Vleet who started in place of Lowry. “There are other reasons that obviously need to get better that we’re going to deal with internally. But if you’re missing shots and they’re making shots, it’s kind of that simple.”
The Raptors trailed 38-19 at the end of the first quarter and 50-25 with 8:19 to play in the second. They managed to get the deficit to 67-51 at the half, but the Spurs came out on a 12-0 run orchestrated by three more DeRozan assists and any hopes for a comeback were largely quashed.
It was undoubtedly some sweet redemption for DeRozan who said prior to the game being traded from Toronto was like finding out you weren’t going to marry the girl of your dreams. And it was surely vindicating for the Spurs fans and their organization. Popovich called being able to acquire DeRozan "a godsend."
But for the Raptors it was a disaster, or a regular-season version of one. Surely part of their recruiting pitch to Leonard is that he’s arrived with a franchise that is primed to win and win big. It can’t be encouraging that in the biggest game of the season, the one where emotions were running the highest, the Raptors fellso flat.
Leonard was reasonably effective, finishing with 21 points on 13 shots and adding five assists, but he had no help. Lowry wasn’t available to go to battle with him and the emerging story of his soon-to-be 33-year-old point guard’s wonky back can’t be the most encouraging sign when it comes to evaluating the Raptors for short or long-term success. Elsewhere the Raptors looked like a team staffed by role players, none able to step up in the moment. Even Green – battle hardened, playing in his home gym – seemed affected as he missed all seven shots he took and was -26, the worst on the night.
Meanwhile the Spurs (22-17) looked as fluid and well oiled as ever, a collection of plug-and-play talents that won for the 11th time in 14 games. Four starters had over 19 points while Rudy Gay had 13. Everywhere he looked DeRozan had an option, and he took full advantage.
Leonard could only wish and all Lowry did was watch.
While Raptors fans will likely spend most of the season wondering if Leonard might possibly stay, after a humbling return to San Antonio Leonard might be wondering why he ever left and where he’s headed next.
Meanwhile as the clock wound down the video board flashed to DeRozan, relaxing after a good night’s work. He was smiling. He looked happy.