SAN ANTONIO — Kyle Lowry can’t remember the last time he was 0-2 to start the season.
The NBA season is just two games old, but the Toronto Raptors veteran leader had strong words for his team’s defence after a 119-114 loss to San Antonio in a Boxing Day battle.
The Raptors’ defence has been its cornerstone for years, and was second best in the league last season. But Saturday’s effort was spotty, and Lowry was asked how close his team’s defence is to where it wants and needs to be.
“Nowhere near it,” Lowry said. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be defensively. But it takes hard work, it takes dedication of watching film, understanding who we’re playing against and making adjustments on the fly.
“I think we’ll watch some film (Sunday) and the next day and see what we did bad and what we did good and try to build off the good end of things rather than dwell on the bad things.”
Former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan scored 27 points including a big three-pointer – his third on the night – with a minute remaining to pull the Spurs to within a point.
“DeMar, that’s part of his game this season, to shoot more threes,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s more confident with it and it shows.”
Fred VanVleet had 27 points to top the Raptors. The loss spoiled a terrific night by Canadian Chris Boucher, who finished with 22 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks.
Pascal Siakam had 16 points and 15 boards, while Kyle Lowry had 16 points, while Aron Baynes chipped in with 13, and OG Anunoby had 10.
Coming off a 113-99 loss to New Orleans in their opener, the Raptors led by 10 points early, but inconsistency on both ends of the floor in the second and third quarters cost them. Toronto went into the fourth quarter trailing 91-86.
Boucher, who signed a two-year contract extension last month worth US$13.5 million and will see much more of the floor this season after the departure of centres Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, was terrific down the stretch for Toronto. And when the Montreal native knocked down a three-pointer, then grabbed a big rebound that led to a VanVleet layup, the Raptors tied the game 101-101 with 6:12 to play.
“Overall the thing you want to see from guys is just improvement,” VanVleet said of Boucher. “He’s gotten better. He’s gotten more comfortable. He’s got a better understanding of our offence, our defence, our schemes, our principles. He’s doing a better job.
“Obviously he’s still got a long way to go. But he’s shown that he’s ready to play this year and he’s ready to contribute.”
DeRozan, who grinned and chatted with Lowry before tipoff, had a couple of key baskets down the stretch.
“He played his butt off. He pretty much won the game for them … he kind of picked us apart,” Lowry said.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored on a putback layup then Rudy Gay connected on a pair of free throws with 12 seconds to play. VanVleet’s three-point attempt clanged off the inside of the rim before falling out and it was game over.
A livid coach Nick Nurse gave the referees an earful before leaving the floor over what he felt was a non-call on Siakam late in the game.
The last time the Raptors had a sub .500 record was in January of 2014, a sign of how solid Toronto has been. The last time they’d been two games under .500 was in December of 2013.
Lowry said the defence will be a work in progress as the team adjusts to new faces, and plays catch-up after a shortened pre-season.
“Your defence should be a little bit more ahead of your offence right now, and we’re just kind of even right now with everything, and it’s a brand new situation for everybody,” he said.
One thing missing Saturday was communication.
“(With no fans), you feel like you would have more communication and louder talking,” Lowry said. “Maybe we’ve got to speak up a little bit more, myself definitely.”
The sea of empty grey seats was a stark backdrop for the Boxing Day game. The piped-in fake fan cheering was odd.
While the Raptors are one of the league’s few teams allowing a limited number of fans at their home games at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, the Spurs do not have fans at the AT&T Center despite fans being allowed at Texas sporting events.
COVID-19 is too great a risk, Popovich said.
“We wish every one of them was there, packed to the gills, but you can’t do it. It’s not safe,” Popovich said. “We would love to have fans here. They are so important to us and always have been. But we owe them a safe environment.
“We need more information. We need more time and that is why for right now it’s not going to be a situation where fans are going to be in the arena. It’s the best policy for them considering what it’s like out there in the pandemic right now.”
Baynes had nine of Toronto’s first 21 points, including a three-pointer that gave the Raptors an early 10-point lead. Toronto took a 39-33 advantage into the second quarter. Their 39 points were the most the Raptors have ever scored in a quarter against the Spurs.
The Raptors went cold in the second quarter, missing 10 straight shots during a five-and-a-half minute scoreless drought. A 23-9 Spurs run put San Antonio up by six points. The Raptors connected on just two of 12 shots from distance in the frame, and the Spurs led 61-58 at halftime.
In the league’s effort to reduce travel amid the global pandemic, the Raptors were scheduled to spend the night in San Antonio before travelling to Philadelphia where they face the 76ers on Tuesday.