Barnes proves pivotal in Raptors’ comeback win over Spurs, Wembanyama

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The perfect outcome for any Raptors fan tuning in to see Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs host Toronto for the first time was simple: see the 19-year-old French phenom do some amazing things, and the Raptors get out of San Antonio with a much-needed win.

Well, Wembanyama delivered. He had expanded his ever-growing highlight reel by the time the game was 10 minutes old. The Raptors? They shone as well, shaking off a shaky first half to overcome a 22-point deficit and upend the Spurs 123-116 in overtime.

The win improved Toronto to 3-4 on the season and 1-1 on their four-game road trip with their next date in Dallas on Wednesday. The Spurs fell to 3-3.

Everyone got what they were looking for. A three by Wembanyama that rimmed in and out late in the overtime period might have extended matters, but by then the point was made: the Spurs rookie is a bonafide star in the making, able to conjure up jaw-dropping plays on both ends of the floor.

But the Raptors have some star power too as Scottie Barnes put the Raptors on his broad shoulders in the fourth quarter to wrap up perhaps his most impressive game of what has been an outstanding start to the season. Barnes took over down the stretch and finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three assists and three steals in 42 minutes.

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With apologies to Wembanyama, he was the best player on the floor for either team.

That said, Wembanyama was as advertised, which is to say, spectacular. He finished with 20 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five blocks in 38 minutes.

The No. 1 overall pick in the draft this past summer and a prospect many seasoned NBA observers believe is the best basketball prospect to join the NBA since LeBron James arrived in 2003 provided multiple plays that you could only giggle at by the end of the first quarter alone.

He got things rolling early when he sprinted along the three-point line off a screen, caught the ball cleanly, gathered all of 7-foot-4 of him into a controlled stop as he simultaneously squared to the basket and made a three-pointer that Golden State Warriors all-time sharpshooter Klay Thompson would nod at approvingly. As a bonus, he made the free throw after OG Anunoby fouled him on his follow-through for a tidy four-point play.

Then he caught the ball going left at the top of the three-point line, slammed on the brakes, got low and reversed direction, using a tight, crisp dribble to split Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes before taking one more dribble to get all the way through the lane for a dunk. If there is another player in the NBA who could put that sequence together it might be Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, but not necessarily. 

And about that defence. At 6-foot-7 Anunoby might be giving up nine inches or so to Wembanyama, but the burly Raptors forward is probably 40 pounds heavier and orders of magnitude stronger than the slender Spurs rookie. Anunoby tried to use his strength to move Wembanyama as he attacked him one-on-one, and it worked: Anunoby’s shoulder moved the Spurs forward a couple of feet off his line. But it didn’t matter. When Anunoby tried to put the ball on the backboard at point-blank range, Wembanyama simply reached over and pinned it on the backboard. It seems too easy for him.

So: in just over eight first-quarter minutes Wembanyama had 9 points, four rebounds, two blocks and a minimum of three hit-the-person-beside-you highlights. Not bad.

Not perfect, mind you. There was some questionable shot selection and some wild ball-handling misadventures, but nothing that can’t be forgiven for any young player trying to find his feet in the world’s best basketball league.

The Spurs – and in particular head coach Gregg Popovich, who is starting his 28th season – have seen this before. As great a season as Wembanyama is likely to have, it’s unlikely to be the best rookie year a Spur has ever had under Popovich, who had Hall-of-Famers David Robinson and Tim Duncan as rookies. They were each significantly older than Wembanyama and authored among the best rookie seasons ever.

As he approaches his 75th birthday, the NBA’s all-time winningest coach doesn’t feel the need to rush anything.

“You have a system. Some things are non-negotiable,” said Popovich when asked if Wembanyama was being handled any differently than some of the Spurs greats of their championship past. “Those things that the basketball gods want you to do, like run back on defence and block out, shoot good shots, all that sort of stuff.

“But as far as how to use him, it takes some time just to see where he’s most comfortable on the court and where advantages are for him based on what his abilities are.

“For most of us, all we saw were highlight films, I wasn’t paying attention to him. And then since he’s here, we’re taking time to just let him play, That will lead us in the direction of how we can help him grow. We don’t assume we know how to grow him without knowing.”

What’s evident is that Wembanyama could conceivably take the game in directions never before anticipated. He’s a one-of-a-kind talent and able to alter games on defence as much as he can offensively. It’s an almost unprecedented combination of skills, size and aptitude, and all were on display. The skill that was perhaps most surprising? He’s already a willing and skilled passer. He should have had more than the four assists he was credited for had his teammates finished off the open looks he found them for. He makes the right play, such as when he recovered a loose ball and rocketed a one-hand pass to the corner where Keldon Johnson buried a three as the shot clock sounded that gave the Spurs a five-point lead with 1:20 to play.

The Raptors’ side of the equation? For most of three quarters, not so good, though their fourth-quarter surge helped clean that up. Wembanyama’s defensive presence is real, and likely a factor in the Raptors shooting just 11-of-24 in the opening quarter. He changed twice as many shots as he blocked. But it wasn’t just Wembanyama’s presence. The Raptors got off to a nice enough start with a couple of buckets from Dennis Schroder and then a banked-in three from the Raptors point guard, along with another three from Anunoby.

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But things ground to a halt shortly after. Pascal Siakam made two ugly turnovers in transition, one while simply overdribbling and losing the ball at the rim, the other while trying to force his way to the basket and getting called for a charge when Gradey Dick was wide-open for a corner three. Toronto finished with five turnovers in the first 12 minutes and trailed 26-22.

Then?

Well then the Raptors bench unit took the floor and that’s been an adventure all season. Two more Raptors turnovers got the Spurs off on the right foot and long-time Raptors killer Doug McDermott hit a pair of wide-open corner threes, adding to the momentum. A Wembanyama corner three and another triple from Zach Collins, the seven-footer the Spurs play at centre, gave the Spurs a 22-point lead, their largest before taking a 54-35 advantage into the third quarter.

The third quarter was more promising for Toronto as they cut the Spurs lead to a more manageable 15-point margin, setting the stage for fourth-quarter fireworks.

That’s when Barnes made it known that Wembanyama wasn’t the only player on the floor with big expectations and the determination to meet them. The third-year Raptors star exploded for 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a stretch where he sparked the Raptors’ comeback with a pair of threes and a spectacular post move he finished with a dunk on a personal 8-2 run.

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He had another big moment in a quarter full of them when he pump-faked Wembanyama, got his feet crossed and drove the rim for the finish that got the Raptors within three with a minute to play. Barnes tied the game with a step-back three with 38 seconds left and nearly won it when his one-handed turnaround off an inbounds play with 0.9 seconds left on the clock bounced on the rim and nearly fell in before rolling off.

The Raptors got off to a quick start in the overtime period as threes from Pascal Siakam – his most important contribution on an otherwise forgettable afternoon as he finished with just eight points on 12 shots – and Anunoby were the spark and the Raptors were able to hang on, finish, and combined with Wembanyama’s brilliance, make for a near perfect afternoon.

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