The Toronto Raptors are at a point in the schedule where, if they can fight off lethargy or complacency, they may be able to put a serious winning streak together. Already winners of four in a row, the Raptors visit a struggling Memphis Grizzlies team on Friday. It’s the first of four consecutive road games against sputtering competition, and while road games and road trips are rarely easy, the Raptors may be favored in each. As far as road trips go, getting the team’s last four-game stretch away from home out of the way against easier competition is a nice break.
The light part of the schedule can be momentum-building season, then. It can also be trap-game season, as the Raptors are aware, and a recent three-game trip against middling opponents serves as a recent reminder that Toronto can’t begin thinking they’ve accomplished anything yet.
“Every game for me is a trap game. I don’t look at the records. I look at every opponent the same,” head coach Dwane Casey warned at practice Thursday.”I wouldn’t say we’re on a roll. We’ve won some games in a row. Cleveland’s on a roll, winning 13 in a row. When we get to that point, we’ll celebrate.”
Something tells me they wouldn’t even be celebrating then, though there’s a path to winning double-digit games in a row without a .500 team on the schedule in the next while. They have to take care of this four-game road-trip first, and it starts in Memphis.
The game tips off at 8 on TSN and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: The Grizzlies are out to a tough and frustrating start, marred by injuries, with ownership questions hanging over the team, and now a coaching change. At 7-12 and following a somewhat public disagreement with Marc Gasol, it feels, from the outside, that David Fizdale got a bad shake in being let go. The Dead Coach Bounce hasn’t even come through to right the ship for Memphis. Was moving on from Fizdale the right move, or was this scapegoating at its worst?
Joe Mullinax: Moving on from him is what had to be done. Fizdale and Gasol’s issues go deeper and have lasted longer than just that public incident- it was the worst-kept secret in Memphis that they didn’t get along or see eye to eye. Fizdale made a major error (or a calculated one, depending on who you ask) in making that beef public in benching Gasol in what was a competitive game in the 4th quarter against the Nets. The organization had to decide between Gasol or Fizdale, and the best player in Grizzlies history won out. He may not be LeBron James, but he is OUR LeBron James…if that makes sense.
Fizdale had questionable schemes and rotations at times, but he was only a head coach for 107 total games including playoffs. He was inexperienced and is young, and is well liked and respected in NBA circles. He will get another chance down the road as a HC. Hopefully he better manages the personalities of his star players at his next stop.
Blake Murphy: Raptors fans have been thirsty for Marc Gasol for years, so while I can’t see Memphis possibly liking a package Toronto can offer, I’m obligated to ask: Does Fizdale’s removal signal that Gasol is off the market for the time being? (If he was ever on it in the first place.)
Joe Mullinax: If anything, for the time being Gasol is more off the market. The firing of Fizdale is an attempt to save this season, which isn’t too far gone, believe it or not. Memphis is only 4 or so games out of the playoffs, and with Mike Conley hopefully returning in the next two or so weeks they could theoretically make a push for the 7th or 8th seed still. While that sounds like a silly goal to some, remember that the Grizzlies value their current seven-season playoff streak and are also all-in with the core of Conley, Gasol, and Chandler “If Healthy” Parsons. It would take a longer absence from Conley, or a complete collapse, for Marc to be available…or for him to ask for a trade out of Memphis, as his brother Pau did a decade ago.
Toronto specifically would need to at least include Valanciunas and a 1st round pick or two for Memphis fans to even consider it, and even then it would probably not be enough unless the Raptors were willing to part with Norman Powell or someone like that as well, which they probably would not be.
Blake Murphy: Dillon Brooks looks to be a terrific find for Memphis, the type of player they haven’t been able to land in the draft consistently of late. What have you liked about Brooks’ game through a quarter of a season?
Joe Mullinax: His versatility, especially defensively, has been a nice surprise. He defended Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler at times against the Timberwolves and did pretty well, and that has been the story all season long. He has a confidence about him that you don’t typically see from rookies, much less second round selections. He has drawn Draymond Green/Kobe Bryant comparisons in that confidence department. It isn’t always warranted- he is worst on the Grizzlies among players who have played at least 500 minutes so far this season with a -14 net rating- but he is a rookie after all, and he is playing outside of his ideal role due to injuries.
He is the best young player on this team…which is kind of sad and promising at the same time.
Joe Mullinax: At this point in the season Toronto is clearly one of the top-3 teams in the Eastern Conference. How have the Raptors been able to build an early advantage toward a high playoff seed?
Blake Murphy: A large part of it is continuity, even with the changes to their system. They’re carrying over two stars, four starters, a head coach, and a few rotation pieces. Yeah, guys are in new rolls and have different responsibilities, but especially early in the season, familiarity and chemistry help. On top of that, the offensive changes they promised have taken hold faster than I think anyone expected. There have been maybe only two or three games where fans got to groan ‘same old Raptors,’ they’ve already topped 30 assists more this year than in the past four seasons combined, and the 3-point shooting has settled in close enough to league average for the offense to once again be a top-5 unit. The defense is a work in progress, particularly in the transition game, and even that’s sitting right around top-10. So in general, it’s a good team off to a good start, to where a 15-7 start is still within the band of expected outcomes (55-win pace), if a bit of an over-performance.
Joe Mullinax: How is our old friend Kyle Lowry doing with his new contract in hand?
Blake Murphy: Quite well, thank you. Lowry had a pretty shaky October as he tried to figure out his new place in the offense (he’s touching the ball much less and running fewer pick-and-rolls), shooting poorly from outside and drawing next to no fouls, two areas that usually make him quite efficient. Since the calendar turned to November, he’s been regular old KLOE – he’s averaging 17.8 points on 68.5-percent true-shooting, dishing 7.1 assists, and grabbing 6.5 rebounds, all while the team keeps his minutes as low as they’ve been in years. He’s probably more of an opportunity defender than a lock-down guy right now, but his rebounding percentage is in double-digits for the season (historic for a guard his size), and he’s drawn more charges (17) than a lot of entire teams have. All of this is to say, he’s been awesome. Pick your metric for further evidence.
Joe Mullinax: Lowry and Derozan get the majority of the attention, but who on this Toronto team is underappreciated, in your eyes?
Blake Murphy: The real answer is probably Dwane Casey, but nobody really likes reading about coaches, so I’ll say C.J. Miles. Lowry and DeRozan get the press, and everyone has been raving about how well the young players (Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl, mostly) have stepped into bigger roles. Miles has been a terrific find, too, and it’s the spacing he provides on offense that lets the all-bench unit Casey’s been rolling with survive at that end of the floor. He’s quickly emerged as a leader, too, essentially quarterbacking a very inexperienced second unit as the Veteran Presents. Miles is shooting 39.3 percent on 12.2 threes per-36 minutes, and there’s a good case the former could go higher if he sees more time with the stars and in the corners (most of his threes have been above the break, with lesser shooters stationed in the corners). And yes, that 3FGA/36 number could be infinity and I’d be okay with it.
Joe Mullinax: Who on this struggling Memphis roster worries you most heading in to tonight’s game whose name isn’t Gasol or Evans?
Blake Murphy: I’m not sure if other fanbases know this, but my son William Lou created what’s called The Gerald Henderson Award, which he gives out on his podcast after every game. Basically, the Raptors are so well known for “Random Player X on Struggling Team Y” going off on them, there’s a nightly nod to one. The easy answer with Memphis is Dillon Brooks, because there’s nothing that would grate fans more than an unheralded Canadian gem falling through the cracks to another team and then killing the Raptors. I’m a really big fan of Brooks’ potential as a role player, so while I’ll note the bias here, he’s my pick.
Joe Mullinax: Why is Toronto so mediocre on the road, and how can the Grizzlies take advantage and beat the Raptors tonight?
Blake Murphy: I think part of their 6-6 record on the road had to do with early circumstance – they went 3-3 on a very tough west-coast trip to open the season, and while two of the losses were frustrating (close ones against the Spurs and Warriors), only one (Nuggets) was a “bad” loss. Then they took two of three on a Bos-Hou-NO four-day trip, which is more than fine. It’s really just the back-to-back awful showings in New York and Indiana two weeks back that stand out, and those were largely the Raptors beating themselves by coming out complacent and entitled for long stretches. That’s not exactly something Memphis can force on the Raptors, so they’ll need to focus on Toronto’s areas of relative weakness – the boards and transition defense. The Raptors are a little below average rebounding at each end, and teams have really been able to run out on them off of misses and turnovers, getting to the rim or spraying to transition shooters. I know Memphis isn’t build for speed or high-volume 3-point shooting, but that’s the way to catch Toronto inattentive or frustrated.
Everything is as it’s recently been for the Raptors, who will probably be without Delon Wright and Lucas Nogueira a few games more but hopefully not too long. Wright is already shooting threes and building his cardio back up, and Nogueira has progressed to using the stationary bike. Where each fits in the rotation when healthy isn’t immediately clear since nobody has struggled in their absence, but there will surely be opportunities for both at some point, particularly Wright. There’s still no timeline for either, though Wright’s been out more than three weeks on a one-month estimate and could conceivably be back on this trip. The team, of course, will take all precautions with the long-view in mind and no immediate need for either to rush back.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl
OUT: Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira
905: Malcolm Miller, Bruno Caboclo
The Grizzlies are a little banged up at the moment, missing a few key pieces. The team is still taking things cautiously with injured point guard Mike Conley, which as led to a lot of time without a true point guard on the floor. Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans sort of split the duties with the starters, with a lot of offense running through Marc Gasol, and Mario Chalmers and Andrew Harrison factor in off the bench. It makes the team fairly big and switchy in the backcourt, but there’s not a real two-way point guard in the bunch. Kyle Lowry likes playing against big opposing guards, so this should be a fun one for him. Obviously, the defensive focus has to be on Gasol, as a playmaker, a shooter, and a driver.
“I don’t know if you’re going to deny him touches. You’ve got to make sure you guard him,” Casey said. “Our bigs’ one-on-one defense, whether it’s in the post or on the perimeter, versus him, they have to have a plan of how you want to approach him, how you want to guard him. He’s one of the best big men in the league, inside and outside.”
Wayne Selden is also out with a multi-week quad injury, a tough blow on the wing given how much potential Selden has flashed. Brandan Wright has also been ruled out with a groin injury, which means backup center minutes fall to Deyonta Davis, giving some Raptors fans who prefered him to Jakob Poeltl before he slid wildly on draft night an extended look.
PG: Ben McLemore, Mario Chalmers, Andrew Harrison
SG: Tyreke Evans, James Ennis
SF: Dillon Brooks, Chandler Parsons
PF: JaMychal Green, Jarell Martin
C: Marc Gasol, Deyonta Davis
OUT: Mike Conley, Wayne Selden, Brandan Wright
Memphis: Vince Hunter, Kobi Simmons, Ivan Rabb
The Raptors are 5.5-point favorites with a 202 over-under.