Even though it looked like the same old record from lately would play out again, the Toronto Raptors seemed to be rediscovering themselves against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night instead.
The last time the Raptors played, Sunday against the world-beating Golden State Warriors, there was nothing they could do to stop the three-point line. Toronto conceded corners again and again, allowing the Dubs to get knocked out to an incredible 22 of 45 mark from the depths.
Two days later, against a not-so-large Grizzlies team, it looked like the Raptors were going to get pierced the opposite way, as they gave up 42 points in the paint and 60.5% of the Grizzlies’ shots in the middle. -time – but they eventually regained their old defensive identity.
The Raptors came back strong in the second half and came away with a 126-113 victory, improving their current trip record to 2-3 with one more game to play Friday night in Indianapolis.
The Raptors entered Wednesday’s affair as one of the best teams in the league to defend the paint, conceding just 42.3 points per game inside. However, like many of the team’s other defenses lately, it completely collapsed in the first half against the Grizzlies, who had a 71-59 halftime lead.
Granted, the Raptors had a pretty good excuse for not being able to defend the paint as well as they normally did. The Grizzlies entered the game averaging 53.1 paint points per game – good for second best in the league – and Toronto was, once again, shorthanded as OG Anunoby missed his fourth game. back-to-back with that left hip pointer injury and the problematic swelling in Khem Birch’s right knee returned, forcing him to miss Wednesday’s game.
Yet even with the Grizzlies’ quality in paint and with the Raptors shorthanded, Wednesday’s dismal defensive performance in that first half was indicative of a larger trend that has plagued the Raptors in recent times.
To start the season, Toronto’s high-risk, high-reward defense seemed to be working well. The team created turnovers, came out in transition and were strong defensively, owning a defensive rating of 102.4 in their first nine games where they were 6-3. Since then, however, while the Raptors have always been successful in creating turnovers and getting out and running, the team went 2-7 and saw their defensive odds plummet, entering Wednesday’s game to just 116.6. .
The defensive identity that was supposed to be the Raptors’ calling card has apparently been all but scrapped or just couldn’t be executed, and in the first half of Wednesday’s game it was trending again.
From easy backdoor cuts to simply incredible rim attacks from Grizzlies star Ja Morant (who finished the game with 23 points, nine assists and a nasty dunk on Toronto’s Chris Boucher), the Raptors offered very little resistance to Memphis concerted attack on painting.
Luckily for Toronto, the Grizzlies are arguably the worst defensive team in the league, and in the third quarter Memphis started to show their true stripes. Toronto was basically getting whatever it wanted at will, opening the period with a 17-5 streak and ending the period just 92-91.
During the quarter, Precious Achiuwa scored his 17 points and played more freely than in previous games with the Raptors.
“He just had a tear like we didn’t really see him,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
In the fourth quarter, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet picked up where Achiuwa left off. Trent scored 17 of his game-high 26 points, including a triple with 5:44 left in the frame that started a 13-2 run. During that streak, VanVleet scored a layup behind the wheel, dropped a dime to Pascal Siakam – who was doing well himself with 17 points and seven assists – and pierced a three dagger to put the game off. range.
“He really picked up the pace there. He’s got a little, no big secret, we were playing the same game over and over and he pretty much found every way to have it, ”Nurse of VanVleet run said. “He was really orchestrating there.”
But as strong as Achiuwa and Trent were in those third and fourth quarters, respectively, it wouldn’t have been possible without a solid defense played by the Raptors, who looked like their old selves earlier in the season, holding the Grizzlies at bay. just 41% of shots from the ground, highlighted by an incredible block from Yuta Watanabe (who made his season debut after missing the entire regular season previously with left calf strain) on Canadian Dillon Brooks in the fourth quarter.
“We just played hard, played like we cared. We are a young team. Sometimes it’s hard to stress the urgency and what it takes to win in this league every night, ”said VanVleet, who had 23 points, six rebounds and seven assists on Wednesday night. “You can’t go out there and go through the moves or you’re going to have a team that will put you 71 in the first half and then you fight uphill. Fortunately, we were able to turn the tide, but that’s not really the way we want to live in the future. “
Nurse added: “I think it’s just the overall energy that is being translated throughout. There were a lot of screws to turn after this defense in the first half. … I always talk about that, when your defensive execution [is good] and you start doing ploys, and you start playing assists on defense, it always turns into better execution and assists on offense, if that makes sense.
Chances are the Raptors wouldn’t have given themselves a chance to tighten things up in this second half without the exploits of rookie phenomenon Scottie Barnes in the second quarter, who had a few ineffective games with a 17-point, an explosion of nine rebounds that saw him score 10 points on 5 of 8 shots in the second quarter only.
Like the return of the Raptors’ defense, seeing Barnes return to form was a welcome sight.
“I think he had a few nights where he just didn’t quite have it. Its good. We’ve all been there. As a rookie, we definitely ask him to do a lot. We need him to produce for us to be good, ”said VanVleet of Barnes. “He turned it over tonight, so it was good to see. Effort, intensity, and attention to detail, these things must be non-negotiable. Anyway else after that, we have to take it in stride. I’m just trying to support him the best I can and thought he was great tonight from the jump.
Over the past nine games, the Raptors have looked lost and decidedly different from themselves – or the versions of themselves most expect them to be. Their troubles of the last few days have almost resurfaced, but it looks like they’ve found each other just in time and what looked to be a disastrous road trip could now turn out pretty well for them.