The Raptors and day games aren’t always something that’s mixed particularly well, and when you put a day game against a team headed for the lottery sandwiched between a tough back-to-back and a game against the Boston Celtics, who the Raptors are chasing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, this one felt like a potential trap game.
To their credit, the Raptors came out strong early. Marc Gasol has been, in the past, a tough matchup for Jonas Valanciunas. Gasol can handle Jonas’ strength while also being a versatile offensive player with a great passing game, a good three-point shot, and skills in the post. He’s a handful for anyone in the league, but Jonas had his number to start this game. The Raptors first bucket of the night was Jonas pump-faking a three-point shot, and the scouting report seems to be out on his his outside shot, because Marc bit on the pump-fake, allowing Jonas to drive past for a dunk. A couple possessions later Jonas hit a three when the defense didn’t come out to cover him, and later in the first he had yet another drive where he got around Gasol for a layup.
Unfortunately, while Jonas was on his game in the first, the same can’t be said for the rest of the starters, who struggled from outside, with JV’s make the only one on 7 attempts, and the Grizzlies making good on half of their six attempts from outside to keep the game within one.
In the second quarter, the Raptors bench came to life. The unit of Fred Van Vleet, Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl combined to hit 8 of their 11 shots in the frame for 18 points while running the lead from 25-24 at the start of the quarter to 35-25 in just the first two and a half minutes. The reserves also picked up 6 steals in the second, and it seemed like Delon Wright was everywhere in the passing lanes, constantly disrupting the Memphis offense. As the starters rotated back in, they were able to feed off the energy the bench guys had provided to keep the momentum going through the end of the quarter, and despite a stretch through the last several minutes of the second when the Raptors couldn’t seem to get much going on offense, they kept their defensive intensity high and were able to keep the lead at 12 going into halftime.
In the third quarter, however, Toronto looked more like a team that had played the second game of a back-to-back 36 hours before tip-off, as they came out sluggish and didn’t have anything going on offense. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry both struggled on both ends of the floor, and OG Anunoby’s jump shot wasn’t going down either. Dwane Casey tried rotating some of the bench guys in to get the momentum back, but in this game, the starters just didn’t have it, and their struggles were enough that Memphis fought this one back to just being a two point game going into the fourth quarter.
Just like in the first half, though, the Raptors bench came out strong immediately in the fourth quarter, with their tough defense being the catalyst for their offense. The foursome of Van Vleet, Wright, Siakam and Poeltl with CJ Miles taking the place of Norman Powell this time around gave no quarter, and held the Grizzlies to just 3 for 22 shooting from the floor while playing the entire frame. This was one of the best games of the year for Poeltl in particular, who has struggled with bigger centers like Gasol in the past, but did an excellent job leveraging his mobility to control space and limit the impact of the stronger Gasol. This was a group offort though, with Delon Wright once again terrorizing the passing lanes in the fourth and being a team high +36 in just 25 minutes, and Fred Van Vleet doing a bit of everything, finishing the game with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists.
This was a Sunday game with plenty of reasons the starters may have been distracted, from Kyle Lowry’s hometown Philadelphia Eagles playing in the Superbowl later in the day to the Boston Celtics visiting on Tuesday night. The Raptors starting lineup didn’t seem to have their heads in the game, and when they get just 24 points on 25 shots, 4 assists and 4 turnovers from your All-Star backcourt, it’s not often the Raptors still come away with a fairly easy win while keeping minutes low, but the proficiency of this year’s bench has been impressive. The roster that Masai Ujiri has built is deep, and one of the benefits of that depth is that there’s always another guy who can step up when someone is struggling, and that was the case Sunday afternoon when the bench wasn’t just good enough, they were great.