After a thorough beatdown of the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night, the Toronto Raptors head into an earlier-than-usual afternoon tip-off against the Memphis Grizzlies at the ACC. The last time the Raptors faced off against the Grizzlies, on December 8th, it was at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. In a see-saw battle, the Raptors bounced back after a rough first quarter, with 3 solid quarters to close out the Grizzlies by a score of 116-107.
Circumstances were a bit different for Memphis back then than they are now. Back in early December, the Grizzlies were in the immediate aftermath of the David Fizdale firing and the season still seemed like it was in flux. Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans put up a combined 47 points and Chandler Parsons and Ben McLemore contributed 15 and 10 respectively as the Grizzlies hot shooting kept them in the game. But in the end, they couldn’t sustain a persistent effort against the Raptors that night.
Now, just 2 short months later, things are a bit different in Memphis. With the news of Mike Conley being shut down for the season last week, Marc Gasol not as elite as he’s looked in previous years, and Tyreke Evans looking like one of the league’s prime trade deadline targets, the Grizzlies have pivoted rather quickly into a bottoming-out phase that will likely see them out of the playoffs for at least this year, if not a few years to come.
The Grizzlies, at 18-33 and with a 24th ranked offense and 17th ranked defense, are the definition of mediocre in the NBA right now. Memphis is 5-18 away from the FedEx Forum and is coming off two straight road losses on their current 4-game Eastern Conference road trip. But, both losses were by less than 5 points (to the Pacers by 4, and Blake Griffin’s Pistons by just 2).
What’s going to very interesting is to see what Memphis will wind up doing with Tyreke Evans. It’s already been made public that with trade talks intensifying for the 28-year guard, they are intentionally holding Evans out of ball games to keep him healthy and primed for a trade. A variety of playoff teams such as the Celtics, Sixers, Bucks, Nuggets and Pelicans have been among the teams expressing interest in Evans, and for good reason. The 2009 4th overall pick has seen a resurgence in his career (which seemed to be tailing off at one point), now averaging 19.5 points and 5 assists a game on over 45% from the field and 39% from 3. A lot of teams would take that right now.
So, what does leave for the Raptors? Well, with Chandler Parsons and Mario Chalmers also out for the game…not much. The projected starters are as follows:
Grizzlies – likely starters
- PG: Andrew Harrison
- SG: Wayne Selden
- SF: Dillon Brooks
- PF: JaMychal Green
- C: Marc Gasol
Raptors – likely starters
- PG: Kyle Lowry
- SG: DeMar DeRozan
- SF: OG Anunoby
- PF: Serge Ibaka
- C: Jonas Valanciunas
The Raptors have the clear advantage at almost every position, but it’ll be critical for them to control the Grizzlies’ bench, which produced 48 points back on December 8th. Canada Basketball fans will also be excited to see Mississauga product Dillon Brooks, the rookie starter who’s averaging just over 8 points for Memphis. If there’s anything even remotely exciting about this team right now, it’s Brooks…the former Pac-12 player of the year, who a couple of weeks ago, was named to the World team at the Rising Stars challenge at All-star weekend. It’s going to be awesome to see Brooks alongside Canadian shooting phenom Jamal Murray who will also be in the game.
Some keys to the game
- Contain Gasol, and you’ll be okay: This guy is really Memphis’ only option on offense right now. The Grizzlies are worse than they used to be, but are relying more than ever on Gasol who’s 26.3% usage rate this year continues to be as high as it’s ever been. As a 33-year-old, the question has been if his talent is still as elite as it once used to be, but even 25 and 10 from this guy on many nights hasn’t been enough for the Grizz. So, quite simply, if you keep Gasol under his season averages, you put yourself in a really good spot.
- Taking the “early start” challenge head on: Starting at 12 pm will be interesting to say the least (thanks to Super Bowl Sunday). And while my theories of “early-start” Raptors may not necessarily be proven, you’ve got to imagine it’s challenging for a team like the Raptors playing a struggling Grizzlies team on their home floor to get up and go so early. But, these are professionals and we should expect nothing less. If the Raptors can avoid the sluggish starts we saw from them earlier in the year, it will help set the tone for an easy victory. The Celtics are coming to town for a big game on Tuesday, so getting rest for the starters like Friday night, might just be what the Raptors need most.
- Get Norm going if you can: After a horrid start to the season, Powell might just be coming around. Earning an average of 22 points in the past 3 games, Norm has averaged 9 a game and has even shown glimpses defensively reminiscent of those magical playoff moments in the past couple of years. I like the Raptors getting Norm going in the first half and seeing if we can prolong it for stretches in the game. If the Raptors are going to make any noise in the playoffs, Norm might just have to crack the rotation and be a consistent piece.
- Finish defensive possessions: A glaring weakness that has emerged mid-season for the Raptor has been the lack of defensive rebounding. The Raptors rank 20th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage coming into this afternoon, and in their past few losses against the Wolves, Jazz and Wizards it’s been a killer.
The line and prediction
The Raptors come in as 11.5 point favourites, but I can see this one being a little closer than expected, especially early on. Given the early start, I’d expect the Raptors to maybe start slow and get stronger as the game goes to ultimately close this one out, but the Grizzlies don’t get blown out as much as you’d expect for a team that’s 15 games under 500. I’ll take the Raptors, but perhaps by just less than the spread.