ATLANTA - No one takes losing harder than Rudy Gay, no one on the Raptors anyway.
He wore it on his face Friday after the Raptors (1-1) suffered their first loss of the young season, a loss he took personally and accepted responsibility for.
"It wasn't that easy for me tonight," Gay said after scoring 14 points on 6-of-23 shooting in Toronto's 102-95 road loss to the Hawks. "I have to go back to the drawing board and think about different ways I can attack, get better and help this team win."
Gay stood motionless in the visitor's locker room, a blank expression on his face as he reflected on a game that slipped away from his team late in the first half. A group of Toronto reserves and a red hot DeMar DeRozan led a comeback bid late in the game but Atlanta had an answer for every Raptors run and the hole was too big to dig out of.
"They made tough shots, they got to the line, they played great defence," Gay said, crediting the Hawks (1-1), who shot a blistering 10-of-23 from three-point range in their home opener. "They ran us in transition [and] we didn't get back. Personally, I don't think I helped a lot."
The Raptors' forward was suffocated by Hawks defenders throughout the game, forcing some tough shots and misfiring on ones he normally knocks down. Amazingly, nine of his 17 missed shots came in the paint, many of them on dribble drives into double coverage. He scored 17 fewer points than DeRozan on the same number of field goal attempts.
"They did, they did but that doesn't matter," a frustrated Gay said, acknowledging the pressure Atlanta put on him. "Every team in the league is going to do that. It doesn't matter."
Gay knows he has to be better. He certainly has to be more efficient as long as the offence runs through him and he continues to launch the bulk of Toronto's shots. He has a believer in his head coach.
"He missed some shots, it's going to happen," head coach Dwane Casey said after the game. "I believe in Rudy, he's going to make those shots. That's going to happen, teams are loading up on him."
While many of Gay's quick shots equated to missed opportunities on offence, he was far from the lone cause of the defeat, as Casey pointed out.
Prior to DeRozan catching fire - he scored 23 of his 31 points in the second half - the Raptors' offence was ineffective, shooting 35 per cent in the opening half and hitting on two of their first 13 attempts from long distance. For the second straight game ball movement and transition defence were problematic and the Raptors failed to rotate and close out on Atlanta's shooters.
Jeff Teague (17 points, 12 assists) and Al Horford (22 points, 16 rebounds) resembled the Spurs all-star duo of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in new coach, and former San Antonio assistant, Mike Budenholzer's system. Teague routinely carved the Raptors defence apart in the lane, often finding the open man in the corner or making the pass that would lead to the open shooter.
"It was a tough game," said Kyle Lowry, who added 16 points and four assists in the loss. "We've just got to get back to what we know how to do and that's defending."
The game was Toronto's first on the road, where they'll play five of their next seven, after an opening night victory at home. Given the nature of the team's newly appointed front office and the roster makeup, this group will feel the pressure to get off to a better start than the one that derailed them a year ago.
"We will get off to a better start," Gay promised. "We've only played two games, you can't compare us to last year. We're going to play a lot better than today I can guarantee that."
"Nobody said we were going to go undefeated," Casey echoed. "Nobody said we were going to be perfect. We're still a team that - like I've said many times - is growing, learning and you can take a lot out of tonight and see where we need to grow."
The turning point
With neither offence clicking early, the first half was mostly a back and forth affair - with 21 lead changes and three ties - before Atlanta broke the game open with just over two minutes remaining in the second frame.
Toronto led 37-36 with 2:15 left in the second quarter before the Hawks went on a 13-2 run, including three triples, to close out the half.
"They hit some threes," Casey said of that stretch. "We knew they were a great three-point shooting team and that's what opened it up."
"That two minute stretch at the end of the half killed us," Lowry agreed.
The Raptors' second unit chipped away at the deficit and DeRozan - a one-man wrecking crew on Friday - helped his team hang around down the stretch.
"We [expended] so much energy to get back," Casey said, "and I applaud our guys for fighting back, scratching and clawing. But again, it's attention to detail right before halftime [and] not letting frustration set in because we miss a couple of shots."
For most of the game - certainly in the second half when he was dominant at times - DeRozan was Toronto's lone bright spot offensively.
The Raptors' guard bounced back after a tough opener against Boston on Wednesday when he shot 6-for-19 and looked a lot like the player that was a standout for this team in the preseason.
"He did a heck of a job of fighting through it," Casey said of the pressure Atlanta put on DeRozan defensively. "He had a rough first half. They were sending bodies at him but instead of getting his head down, he got going in the second half, looked to attack and got to the rim, which opened up his jump shot."
For the second straight game the Raptors registered just 15 assists, including six in the first half and one in the opening quarter.
"That's been an issue all through pre-season, it's nothing new," Casey said of the ball movement concerns. "We continue to work on moving the ball. We have to continue to work on that and get better."
"That team, they really load up really strong," Lowry added. "We have two players who are very individually gifted in Rudy and DeMar so we have to find ways to get those guys the ball but get movement after."
Mutual respect between coaches
Friday marked Budenholzer's first home game as a head coach after spending 19 seasons in San Antonio where he served as an assistant under Gregg Popovich. He and Casey go way back to their battles, both as assistant coaches, in the Western Conference - Budenholzer with the Spurs and Casey in Dallas and Seattle. The two shared high praise for each other.
"He's a really special coach," Budenholzer said of his counterpart on Friday. "He's really special working with players and developing players, what he's done with some guys over their careers when he was an assistant and now as a head coach. I have a ton of respect for him. I enjoy being around him and I enjoy working with him."
"I'm so happy he got his opportunity to be a head coach," Casey said of Budenholzer. "He did so much for San Antonio. [Popovich] kind of turned things over to him so a lot of stuff that San Antonio did is to his credit. He's been doing it for a long time [but] his name wasn't listed as a head coach. He's a special guy. He's finally getting a shot."
The system Budenholzer has installed in Atlanta shares similarities to the one he and Popovich have run for a couple decades in San Antonio, Casey pointed out. A lot of the pick-and-roll sets the Spurs run for Tony Parker and Tim Duncan fit skill set of Teague and Horford. Casey can identify with Atlanta's new coach having gone through a similar situation a couple years back, coming in and preaching new principles with an overhauled roster (the Hawks have eight new players).
"It's tough," Casey admitted. "He's going through that now and it takes time [and] patience. Believe me, they're closer than we were when [I] first came in. He's putting in an excellent system."
For the second straight game Casey and his team went up against a first-year head coach, having faced the Celtics' Brad Stevens on Wednesday.
"The coaching profession's very cyclical," he recognizes, in the final year of his deal. "It's a tough profession and the new guys coming in brings a freshness to the table. [Budenholzer] brings a freshness even though he's been at it for a long time, being a first-time head coach is different. Talking to [Stevens] the other night, it's a different game than the college game. So it's a newness but it's a players league. We're the keeper of the gate. We kind of organize, manage but it's a players league."