Grizzlies 86, Raptors 99 – Box
Even watching on mute you could feel the playoff atmosphere. This was a matchup I was wary of on account of the Grizzlies’ massive frontline and strong perimeter defense. Their strengths align with the Raptors’ weaknesses when it comes to frontline physicality, and they have the weapons to counter the Raptors’ strength on the perimeter. The only way the Raptors were going to win a game like this is through attrition, soaking the Memphis defensive pressure, and making an interior stand. They did all that and came away with, for me, the most impressive win of the season.
Memphis, right from the start, looked to exploit their advantage in the paint by creating situations for Marc Gasol that send him right down the middle, and through Zach Randolph in the face-up against Jonas Valanciunas. As has been customary, the PF/C switch was on with Valanciunas matching up against Randolph and Amir Johnson against Gasol. Those two were 6-10 for 12 points in the first quarter alone, and were the reason for Memphis’ early 14-6 points-in-the-paint edge, and a 13-8 rebounding advantage. The Raptors responded on two fronts, both charges led by Kyle Lowry. Lowry was superb in navigating pick ‘n roll play against a tight-checking Memphis defense through screens and setting up his bigs on easy rolls. His individual offense was headlined by an early three and a three-fake-foul where he nailed all his fouls shots.
The amount of touches Valanciunas received in the early going was surprising, considering the current defensive player of the year was guarding him. He did make the most of it though some one-on-one moves like hooks, but mostly he found himself on the tail end of a well-executed play to get his points. Let not some of his shaky fouls and turnovers stand out for you because that would shadow an otherwise excellent performance against a formidable frontline.
On the wings, DeMar DeRozan was being checked by Tayshaun Prince, while Terrence Ross was being guarded by Tony Allen. The Raptors duo were being funneled into Gasol and were settling for shooting over him, leading to sub par results. Memphis extended their 5-point first quarter lead to 9 in the second by, 1) forcing the Raptors into very tight spaces, 2) playing to their interior strengths on offense, 3) quick-penetration PG play which kept the Raptors wings on the tips of their toes. It looked like the Raptors were bending to break. Greivis Vasquez, sporty haircut and all, had other plans. He played the full second quarter and went 4-7 for 12 points, including two threes. The floater was happening and the pull-up surprise three was falling. Of course, all of his misses were cringeworthy to the extreme, but his offensive play buoyed the Raptors against a Memphis team that was highly organized and able to manufacture quality shots consistently.
Ross and DeRozan were a combined 1-8 in the first half, being effectively taken out of the game by Allen and Prince, respectively, so the Raptors have Valanciunas and Vasquez’s combined 26 points at the break to thank for being up three at the half. Ross did sprain his ankle, returned briefly before heading out.
The second quarter is where Dwane Casey experimented with different looks against Gasol, before settling on sending DeRozan as a help defender on Gasol’s dribble. DeRozan rotational defense was not good in this game, especially on down-screens where he’s responsible for rotating to the top. So it makes some sense for Casey to use him as the help leaving other, more able defenders, to figure out rotations.
The third quarter was about holding serve and both sides stuck to their strengths. The Grizzlies went to Kosta Koufos with good effect in the block, and the ensuing crashing of the boards netted them 16 points in the paint in the third alone, to the Raptors’ meager four. The Raptors, as they have time and time again this season, relied on the engine that is Kyle Lowry. From step-back threes to some gorgeous passing play with the bigs to the tune of four assists in the frame had the Raptors go into the fourth up four. The Memphis defense was so intent on meeting Lowry before he got to the paint, that a quick interior pass or two freed up Amir Johnson or Valanciunas on the baselines after they flashed. Johnson had two such assists to Valanciunas in the second half.
The dynamic of having Lowry play off the ball was also evident. His three-point shooting is a threat to the degree that when Vasquez is on the court, the floor is more open for pick ‘n roll opportunities. Lowry also doesn’t get enough credit for moving without the ball and eluding defenders to find himself room at the three. Dwane Casey, having tried creative lineups such as Chuck Hayes and Valanciunas together, had done well to reach the fourth quarter with a chance, and it was time to bring it home.
The lineup to start the fourth was Hayes, Salmons, Novak, DeRozan and Vasquez. The quarter got off to a horrid start with the offense looking a shambles and the Grizzlies going back inside. The modest four-point lead was erased in a matter of 79 seconds and the ensuing Raptors possession was not looking promising. Then the bail-out. The Raptors earned a reprieve when DeRozan was fouled on a deep, end-of-clock three which had no chance and drilled all his free throws.
“I don’t mean this in a bad way with Memphis because I love the style of defence that they play, but the only way you challenge a bully is you hit him first and I don’t think we did that in the first quarter,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “You have to have a physical mentality against a team like that, and I thought our guys did that after the first quarter.
“It’s a man’s game in the paint. In that red area, if you don’t make a muscle, you’re going to get pushed around and I thought we did in the first quarter.”
The game remained tight with DeRozan hitting two jumpers and Lowry executing a pick ‘n roll with Johnson. The Grizzlies obliged by committing three turnovers in the midst of a very Gasol-oriented stretch, and the game was deadlocked with six minutes left. Vasquez, seemingly out of nowhere, changed the complexion of the game with a three, followed by a steal and score, giving the Raptors a five-point edge. Ironically, it was his defense, something he was maligned for earlier in the game against Nick Calathes, that created the separation that would eventually prove to be fatal for Memphis.
Memphis went very jumper-heavy for a two-minute stretch, which made little sense given the outcomes they were getting when going to their frontline. Lowry setup Valanciunas under the rim on a pick’ n roll and DeRozan nailed the dagger to extend the lead to ten, promptly staring down the Memphis bench. Tony Allen and Co. must have been talking some smack during the game for DeRozan to even consider pulling out theatrics. The great part of that play was the collective sigh that Amir Johnson passing up the three yielded.
For me, this was as impressive a game the Raptors have played. Jonas Valanciunas has to be given the game-ball as his 11-15 for 23 points against serious defense was entirely unexpected, Vasquez’s second and fourth quarter cameos provided the timely boosts, Lowry’s constant influence served as the ship’s rudder, and DeRozan’s dagger was the nail in the coffin.
Tremendous result, and the cherry on top is the Raptors out-rebounding Memphis by one. With the playoffs on the horizon, close games like these where you have to rely on defense, shot-making, and execution to win you games is the perfect preparation.