A Friday night road game against a struggling team with a tenuous psyche. Friday night’s visit to play the Memphis Grizzlies was exactly the kind of game the Toronto Raptors, as currently constructed, should dominate, and exactly the kind of game fans have grown to fear some, the team susceptible to poor starts or quarters or halves. At a time when the how matters more than the how many, getting by narrowly, even on the road, isn’t always a panacea for the minutes that come before the victory.
At the same time, basketball is an entertainment product first, and even at their most frustrating, the Raptors are an immensely entertaining team. Friday’s 116-107 Raptor victory, then, while marred by a terrible seven minutes or so that threatened to put a magnifying glass on Toronto’s occasional lethargy away from home, was enjoyable all the same. The Grizzlies felt their Comedown from a great run too early, the Raptors fixed the Little Things that plagued them, and while the Monkey still remains on their back in terms of dominating as they maybe should for full games (which, really, is an overstated occurrence league-wide), this was the kind of Friday-night affair with enough fun and flair that a recap can ham-fistedly work in a bunch of references to annoy a friend who doesn’t think Machinehead should be GameOps fodder when it absolutely should be.
Anyway, the starters didn’t come out of the gate completely devoid of Testosterone. They didn’t exactly gome out a house afire, either. The offense produced some solid looks against an aggressive Grizzlies pick-and-roll scheme, the Raptors just missed some shots or carelessly turned the ball over trying to do a bit too much. The defense was less on point, with Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans running fairly free. Jonas Valanciunas did his best opposite Gasol, but the combination of Gasol’s multifaceted offensive game and OG Anunoby biting on Evans’ tricks twice, the Grizzlies were able to get into a comfort zone scoring, something they don’t exactly do often.
The bench bigs stabilized things for a short period, the introduction of Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl accidentally introducing a few minutes of chaos. The Raptors pulled within one after trailing eight, only for the Grizzlies to pull back away with a 9-0 run opposite a DeMar DeRozan-led bench group. It was largely the fault of miscues and inattention, with Ben McLemore running free toward the end of the first quarter and then starting the second quarter hot, too. Memphis shot 14-of-19 in the first, giving the Raptors an 11-point uphill Swim, exactly the kind of start they’ve been talking about avoiding at the top of halves.
The all-bench unit was unable to stabilize things, which has become more of a trend of late (that particular fivesome has a negative net rating on the year). Dwane Casey was forced to use a third angry timeout within the first 14 minutes of the game after a careless turnover led to yet another easy Grizzlies bucket, and he turned back to three starters much earlier than he normally does. That smaller group included two point guards, two wings, and Serge Ibaka, and the extra space helped open up the middle for Toronto a bit, while Anunoby continued to be a high-energy impact-maker. The rookie had a great cut for a dunk in the first, forced multiple turnovers with his energy, and made a number of high-IQ defensive plays in the half to make life tougher for Memphis.
Comeback momentum was tough to find despite the shift in effort level. Gasol hit a three after a long break, then forced a turnover to send McLemore on a break. Had McLemore not missed a wide-open 360-jam – a genuine “no, thank you” to the Raptors’ apparent effort to make McLemore a star for a night – Memphis may have pulled away further. As it was, the starters defended fairly well in their second stint as a unit, Valanciunas was a factor around the rim at both ends (he and Ibaka did a nice job tag-teaming Gasol here), and Anunoby drilled a Bomb from the corner as part of an 11-2 run to pull back within four. Memphis could only push it back to five by the break, a great spot for Toronto to be in after the bench was pummeled.
The third quarter remains an issue, though, and the Raptors lost a lot of their progress immediately, coughing up a 6-0 run that saw Casey use yet another quick timeout. Things settled back in from there, though it wasn’t without frustrating moments, like Anunoby getting whistled for an Evans rip-through four-point play or Evans and JaMychal Green finishing tough shots against Ibaka contests at the rim. Still, they stemmed the tide long enough that an Ibaka jumper, Valanciunas post bucket, and the obligatory Kyle Lowry takeover stretch kept them within striking distance. DeRozan had a terrific cut to draw a foul (he and Ibaka were both at 20 points at this point), Anunoby made another terrific play digging in to help Jakob Poeltl against Gasol and force a turnover, and a Fred VanVleet three gave the Raptors their first lead since the game’s opening points.
Memphis would take a one-point edge back entering the fourth, once again a deficit Toronto probably felt comfortable with given their oft-shaky play to that point. Casey trusted the all-bench unit despite the shaky performance earlier, and they rewarded that faith with a terrific stretch. VanVleet found Poeltl with a pair of ludicrous bounce passes, the defense forced Memphis into the type of shots they want opponents taken (and by whom), and VanVleet drilled another three to cap a 10-4 run that gave Toronto their biggest lead of the game at five. Lowry came back in for a struggling C.J. Miles, and the run extended to 11-0 after Poeltl and Siakam did a nice job on Gasol and then Siakam had a strong baseline cut and a transition run-out off a nice VanVleet pass.
In other words, the bench gave its usual dose of Glycerine, taking all of five minutes to explode and more or less make up for earlier. The starters filtered back in, and a lot of the psychological damage had been done by the 28-point swing. Casey rolled with a defense-heavy group to close, and Memphis couldn’t chip their way back into things, which bled over. Gasol and Evans even picked up a technicals as the Grizzlies pushed their way to 16 turnovers, completely losing the handle on any chance of coming back and giving DeRozan more opportunity to dap up his imaginary friends. (Gasol was incensed after the game.)
When the final buzzer sounded, DeRozan had another all-around, 26-7-6 night, and Lowry chipped in a loud 16-6-8, and while the team only tallied 21 assists, those two combining for 14 is always a good sign. At 36 and 37 minutes, it’s maybe a little harder on the Body than is ideal, but those workloads are not Alien to them, and they’ve been far less frequent this season. The young bench players had strong second halves, VanVleet in particular, Anunoby looks more and more the part of a legitimate present-term piece by the week, and Ibaka had a great first half offensively, then figured things out with Valanciunas defensively in the second (the Raptors’ starters are the best unit in basketball over the last five games, respect to all caveats, and now a noticeable positive on the season).
It was another game where the Raptors would surely love to clean things up, getting into better habits in terms of 48-minute play for when the competition is stiffer (and less fragile). For the time being, though, the schedule is light, and there’s a feeling of Everything Zen when they’re consistently fighting the extra gear to put away inferior teams despite not having their complete best every night out. There are more of those games to come, which is at the same time an opportunity to iron out the wrinkles and more assertively win those games and some insulation that even if they don’t, the wins will probably still be frequent. There’s a comfort in that, affording the opportunity to be analytical and search for the predictive while also enjoying some entertaining games.
Uhh…they’re now Sixteen Stone and seven. Or something. Have a great weekend, everyone.