San Antonio Spurs 116, Toronto Raptors 103: Baynes’ big night

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There were two forces at play during the San Antonio Spurs’ 116-103 win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. The first was of Aron Baynes, the seldom-used Australian big man whose broad shoulders occupy lots of space at the end of the Spurs bench or in a suit just a row behind.

Coming into Tuesday night’s contest, Baynes had totaled just 17 points in 87 minutes over 11 appearances this season. When the dust settled at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Baynes put up 16 points, six boards and physical defense in almost 21 minutes of his first worthwhile action since San Antonio’s first round closeout win over Dwight Howard and the Lakers last spring.

With Tiago Splitter out of commission for at least Tuesday and Wednesday evening, Gregg Popovich pegged Jeff Ayres to slide into Splitter’s starting spot. Ayres proved to be the wrong reserve big man to saddle up next to Tim Duncan, though, as Duncan was forced to guard Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas. Jonas scored 10 points in the first quarter over Duncan in a variety of ways, while Amir Johnson replicated Valanciunas’ feat with Ayres defending. For the Spurs, something had to change.

Enter Baynes.

Baynes’ inclusion in the game allowed Duncan to slide over and defend Johnson and Toronto’s other power forwards, while Baynes bodied up Valanciunas down low. From the start of the second quarter on, Valanciunas scored just four points on 1-for-3 shooting and grabbed a single rebound.

That was the difference in the game, as a Spurs team that looked bogged down and ragged to start the night suddenly found some exuberance behind Baynes’ surprising play.

The Raptors were shorthanded, mind you, following Monday’s seven-player trade with the Sacramento Kings. None of the pieces Toronto received in the deal were available for this game, leaving the Raptors with just 10 bodies to choose from. Against a team as deep as the Spurs, that’s a helluva obstacle to overcome. And when San Antonio’s 13th man has a performance like he did on Tuesday, there’s no scaling that wall.

The other force at play in San Antonio’s win over the Raptors was one of a organization continuing to make the right moves and a locker room culture winning out. San Antonio’s win over the Raptors was Aron Baynes’ first meaningful action of the season, and other than the three fouls he picked up in the first half of the game, you would’ve had a hard time proving it.

On nights in San Antonio where Baynes dresses for a game but doesn’t play, or features in just a handful of garbage time minutes, he can be found entering the locker room during media availability about 30 minutes or so after a game sopping with sweat. He and guys like Cory Joseph, Jeff Ayres and Nando De Colo often do conditioning after the game to keep themselves in something close to game shape in case their number is called.

When Baynes’ jersey is not hanging in his locker before the game and instead he’s forced to watch the evening’s affair in a suit behind the bench, Spurs assistant coach Chad Forcier puts him through a rigorous (or more so than usual) pregame workout. The type of intensity you and I wouldn’t dream of doing on our freshest days, Baynes is going through 90 minutes before tip because the Spurs know they’ll need him to log some minutes at some time this season.

But sometimes that’s not enough. What a player needs more than anything to stay in game shape and to have the mental edge needed to read and react at the highest levels of basketball is some honest-to-goodness playing time. Smart enough to purchase their own D-League franchise years ago in large part to develop young talent, the Spurs have taken advantage of changes instituted in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement by shuttling inexperienced players back and forth to Austin at will to get the heavy minutes they’re not going to find in San Antonio. Spurs off day and Toros game day? Send a player or three to Austin for some playing time.

On Sunday the Spurs did just that, assigning Baynes, Nando De Colo and Malcolm Thomas to Austin for the Toros’ afternoon game against the Reno Bighorns, where Baynes put up 21 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes of action. On Monday morning Baynes and De Colo were back with the Spurs and on a plane to Toronto. Would we have seen the same performance from Baynes had he not shaken some rust off in Austin on Sunday? Hard to say. But being a well-run franchise is more than just finding the right players and winning games, it’s taking advantage of every tool at your disposal and the Spurs have it down to a science.

On Tuesday the Spurs looked dead in the water eight minutes into the game. Tim Duncan couldn’t hit a shot and Tony Parker couldn’t hold on to the ball. To make matters worse, Raptors big men Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson looked like All-Stars. Gregg Popovich’s leash is short on back-to-backs and San Antonio looked headed for a night of frustration.

But thanks to the organizational systems in place and a team culture that emphasizes readiness and preparation, the Spurs left Toronto with a big win. And a large Australian man had a night he’ll never forget.

Also, poor Kawhi Leonard: