DeMar DeRozan had a 21-point, 14-rebound, 11-assist triple-double as the San Antonio Spurs beat the Toronto Raptors 125-107 on Thursday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge led all scorers with 23 points.
Kawhi Leonard had 21 points for the 28-12 Raptors, who are just 8-8 after a 20-4 start. Starting point guard Kyle Lowry, who did not play Thursday, has missed nine games during that stretch with back and thigh injuries.
The 22-17 Spurs have won 11 of their last 14 games.
Toronto and San Antonio met for the first time since the sides made a blockbuster trade that sent Leonard and Danny Green north and DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick south.
Spurs' Path to Top-4 Seed in West Rests on DeRozan's Passing
DeRozan averaged just 3.1 assists per game during his nine-year tenure with the Toronto Raptors.
That number has more than doubled in San Antonio, as DeRozan averaged 6.3 assists entering Thursday. That figure was at 7.0 dimes per night during the team's 10-3 stretch heading into the Toronto game.
DeRozan's improved passing skills in his last year in Toronto received press, including a piece from Eric Koreen of The Athletic. But he's taken things to another level in 2018-19 as the team's de facto floor general with regular starting point guard Dejounte Murray out for the year with a torn ACL.
The Spurs need more of DeRozan's facilitating skills to reach the top four in the Western Conference, which would guarantee home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. They've helped the team emerge from a sluggish start and squarely into the top-eight mix in the West.
As Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News noted, DeRozan's passing ability helps the team when he's having a rough night from the field. For example, the ex-USC star went just 6-of-18 shooting against the Boston Celtics on December 31, but his 10 assists helped San Antonio earn a nine-point win.
DeRozan offered his comments on his facilitating:
"I love (facilitating). It makes my job easier. I remember earlier in my career, I always used to get frustrated if I had an off-night shooting because you don't really get a feel for everything else. Now, I don't mind when I have games where I can't make a shot. If I do everything else well, it feels just as good as if I went out there and scored 30 points."
Head coach Gregg Popovich also praised DeRozan, calling him a "scorer who can also pass, and it's a great combination."
Teammate Patty Mills offered further compliments, per Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun:
"The passing for me was impressive. It obviously opens up another opportunity for him as an offensive threat the more he gets others involved. I think that has been the biggest thing. Watching him get his teammates involved and making them better. It's great for our team, it's great for him and it's great for other guards. You see the reactions from other guys on the court and on the bench and all of a sudden you are creating this chemistry with each and everyone on the team and it's just great to see and great to be involved in."
The Spurs look like a machine, and their home dominance (16-5) only adds to their potential. If DeRozan continues his excellent passing into the latter half of the season, then the Spurs will be a tough out in the playoffs.
DeRozan Gives Spurs Security Raptors Can Only Dream of with Kawhi
Despite the loss, the Raptors are still in the thick of the Eastern Conference race and conceivably have as good a chance as any team to emerge from the East and make the NBA Finals.
Leonard has played a massive part in that standing, as he averaged 27.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game entering Thursday.
However, the Raps could be without their franchise player next year as Leonard is a free agent in the summer of 2019.
Various reports foreshadow an exodus.
Tim Bontemps of ESPN reported Thursday that league executives believe that Leonard will either re-sign with the Raptors or join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Leonard is originally from Southern California, which could help explain the Clips' allure. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN also said in September (h/t Clippers writer Farbod Esnaashari) that L.A. was his preferred destination.
Of course, Leonard could stay in Toronto, where he's enjoyed much success and is arguably having his best season. But the noise for Leonard's potential move to L.A. is loud.
Meanwhile, DeRozan looks like the Spurs' No. 1 player for the next five seasons. The 29-year-old can opt out of his contract in 2020, but he's found a second home in San Antonio.
Per Sarah Martinez of the San Antonio Current, DeRozan called being in San Antonio "a blessing" before the season.
Conversations with Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford also eased his fears, per DeRozan's interview with Michael C. Wright of ESPN:
"But when I talked to [Popovich], talked to R.C., it was such a reassurance of understanding, like, 'We didn't trade you. We traded for you.' Understanding, 'We want you. We want you here. We want you to be you. Don't worry about nothing. We're going to make the transition as easy as possible.' When you hear something from Pop like that, that's all you need to hear. You don't need to hear no whole story or nothing. That's all you needed to hear."
San Antonio has embraced him as well, and the San Antonio Express-News editorial board even closed a November 6 piece praising DeRozan by saying, "We're thrilled you are here, DeMar. May San Antonio find a special place in your heart, too."
Ultimately, DeRozan looks like he'll give the Spurs some stability as their franchise player well into the 2020s. While the Raptors have tremendous talent outside Leonard (e.g. Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet), they may need to find another top scorer if he leaves town.
Both teams play Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET.
Toronto will visit the Milwaukee Bucks in a battle between the top two Eastern Conference teams. San Antonio finishes a three-game homestand against the Memphis Grizzlies.