After being blown out of the building by Houston, the Raptors (3-12) are in Memphis tonight to take on the Grizz (10-2). The Grizzlies are Scarlett Johansson-hot to start the season, sitting alone on top of the Western Conference and currently ranked first in both the Stein and Hollinger Power Rankings. While on paper, this game appears to be a mismatch, we could have said the same thing about the Spurs on the weekend, and the glass-half-full way of looking at a team that continues to lose close games (besides last night’s blow-out in Houston) is that they’re at least in all of them, so it’s certainly worth tuning in, even if it’s just to watch Jonas handle his toughest test in the post yet, or the inevitable Jose/Bayless bench PG grudge match. Of course, the glass-half empty way to look at this game is that we’re on the second half of a back to back, on the road, and on a five game losing streak, and if you were going to list every team in order of their chances to break the Raps’ recent woes, the Grizzlies would be WAYYYYYY down the list.
The key word for the Grizzlies’ climb to the top of the West: balance. They’re currently ranked 4th in the league in both O and D rating, and four of their five starters are currently averaging 14.8 points per game or above (with the fifth being lockdown defender Tony Allen). Looking at their roster composition, it’s a bit surprising that they’ve managed to climb to the top of the heap in the league – they have the same starters as last year and a pretty similar bench, minus O.J. Mayo and plus Jerryd Bayless – so maybe it’s more of a case of the other West contenders falling back to the pack (the Harden trade, the Lakers’ early struggles, etc). In any case, they’re a nightmare matchup for Toronto with perhaps the best big-man combo in the league in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, as well as a strong wing scorer in Rudy Gay. You thought Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond had their way inside against the Raps? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Bottom line here is that the Raptors will need all of their key guys to contribute in big ways, on short rest, to have a chance to compete tonight. It’s a lot to ask, but the last two “guaranteed losses” we marked down were against the Pacers after that triple OT game with the Jazz (win) and the Spurs (double OT loss), so the Raptors have been making a habit of putting out their best performances when we least expect it. We’ll see.
Keys to the game for the Raptors tonight:
- The starters have to keep it close. I don’t care if it’s by Lowry taking advantage of the one marked positional advantage the Raptors may have in the starting lineup (he should be well rested seeing as he basically took last night’s game off), Bargnani going nuts from outside a lá the Pistons game, or Dominic McGuire hitting Zach Randolph in the kneecaps with a baseball bat. The Raptors’ advantages against the Grizzlies start and end with their bench depth, and if the starters can keep the game reasonably close against Memphis’ top unit, then the Raps’ bench may be able to outscore the Grizzlies’ bench enough to pull the game out. The tried-and-tested Jose/Amir combo will be key to this effort, of course, as will the surging Ed Davis, who I’d imagine will get an increased workload tonight against Memphis’ tough rebounding front line.
- McGuire/someone has to stop Rudy Gay from going nuts. Alright, Dominic, you want to be a defensive stopper? Let’s see it. This matchup scares me in that I could easily see Memphis having a 20+ point advantage at the starting small forward position if Gay has even a slightly-above-average game, and I just don’t know how the team will find enough point advantages at other positions to mitigate that. Dominic, now’s your time to shine. Terrence Ross looms as a major X-factor here as well – he’s really started to show something and he’ll need to be a difference maker off the bench to make up for the scoring deficiency we have with McGuire starting. I’d be very, very happy if he got the start tonight, but my hopes aren’t high.
- DeMar has to get to the hoop. Sounds simple, until you remember that he’s being guarded by Trick-or-Treat Tony Allen, one of the top perimeter defenders in the league and a guy who’s had DeMar’s number the last few times out (DeRozan’s scoring average against Memphis in two games last year: a paltry 11 points). DeMar should have the speed advantage in this matchup, and he’ll have to produce to keep the Raps in the game tonight, which means not settling for jump shots and not getting frustrated if he’s stopped his first few times to the basket. A steady stream of DeMar to the hoop also means a chance for Memphis’ bigs to get in foul trouble (Zach Randolph in particular, who is a poor help defender), which can only mean good things for the Raptors.
- Jonas has to be able to play Zach Randolph to a standstill. I’m assuming Casey will give Andrea the matchup on the more perimeter-oriented Marc Gasol, which means it’ll be up to Jonas to bang in the post against Z-Bo. Asking Jonas to keep an all-star forward like Randolph under wraps is a huge assignment for a rookie centre, and demonstrates both the Raptors’ matchup difficulties against Memphis and the impressive job Jonas has done thus far this season. I’m really looking forward to seeing his offensive repertoire continue to develop, and a steady stream of high screens, jump hooks, and mid-to-close-range jump shots will help to even out this matchup, as Randolph isn’t exactly known to be a top-notch post defender. Jonas’ speed and athleticism will have to carry him through here, but it’s a ton to ask. A solid showing here would be a great individual confidence boost, and yet another positive sign for Raptors fans.
I’m not including Andrea in the keys to the game for a very specific reason – the team proved on Sunday against the Spurs that they can compete with any team in the league, even when he’s off. That said, a good all-round performance here would be huge for his confidence and will certainly help the team be competitive, as well as swing the yo-yo that is the fanbase currently calling for Andrea’s head one game after his best performance of the season (after one of his worst of his career, to be fair). We don’t need a Pistons-esque scoring run to beat the Grizzlies, but a nice efficient box score, like the one he had last night against Houston, would be a huge boost.
Betting line isn’t out tonight as Conley is still not confirmed to play (flu-like symptoms, but assume he’s in). I’d love to go against the grain and say the Raps are going to keep this close, but after that Houston game, my hope is waning. This has all the makings of another blowout. Grizzlies by 14.