VanVleet helps Raptors grit-n-grind past Grizzlies

Ho-hum, the Toronto Raptors played another game, won another game.

On the surface, tallying 122 points in an eight-point victory while shooting over 60 percent from the field and making over half their three-point attempts doesn’t lend to winning in ugly fashion, but trailing by as many as 17, on the road, in a building where the Memphis Grizzlies have won seven of nine to start the season, the Raptors needed something extra.

There were technical fouls on Serge Ibaka and Nick Nurse, a bit of chippiness between Pascal Siakam and Omri Casspi, and even a rare show of emotion from the usually stoic Fred VanVleet. The clash with the Grizzlies marks a stretch in which the Raptors play 11 of their next 14 games against opponents firmly in the thick of the early playoff race. There will be Golden State twice, Jimmy Butler’s 76ers twice, and the surging again Denver Nuggets twice as well. To sum up, this was an early opportunity for Toronto to set the standard for what’s to come, not in terms of wins and losses necessarily, but for the mindset and willingness to find an extra gear in their compete level.

The entire fabric of the Memphis Grizzlies’ past decade has been predicated on the power of grit and grind. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol became the foundation of a franchise that never appeared flashy but leaned into their way. They’ve had some highs — like the Raptors, they’ve made one conference final — and they’ve had some lows having made first round exits in three of their last four trips to the postseason.

After a down year last season, the Grizzlies are back being their best selves. Armed with seventh overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. — who just a quarter into his rookie season has shown the makings of a future Defensive Player of the Year award winner — and improved versatility and depth at the wing positions in Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Casspi (yes, 11 minutes of knowing what you’re going to get is better than Chandler Parsons), Memphis is back to playing top-five defense and, in this climate, had held opponents under 100 points eight times through 19 games.

The game started off in what has become customary fashion for the Raptors, Serge Ibaka knocking down a pick-and-pop two, Pascal Siakam getting in the paint with ease, and Danny Green knocking down a three for a quick 8-0 start in under 90 seconds. The Grizzlies were only beginning to cook, though. Pocket passes, lead passes and kickouts alike that the Raptors could make without thinking twice against previous opponents were now resulting in turnovers (Memphis is second-best in the league at doing this per CTG), Marc Gasol was providing early signs of a big night, and the Grizzlies even held the Raptors to just two points over a four-minute stretch in the first quarter.

Both teams traded baskets thereafter leading to a one-point game heading into the second, but VanVleet did hurt his right ankle while trying to avoid a courtside photographer after a driving past Garrett Temple to score.

VanVleet has had a tough go of it in this early season, but perhaps it was a sign of things to come that even a play that hurt him resulted in two points.

The second quarter began with Casspi and Temple combining to score the first 10 Grizzlies points, and C.J. Miles struggling to keep up. A season ago, Miles’ shooting came at such a premium for the Raptors that they had to find a way to battle through his defensive ineptitude. With wing depth and a superstar at his primary position, making both his three-point attempts was good for five minutes of action on this night.

Truth be told, efense was the theme for the Raptors as a whole in the second quarter. They allowed 39 points (kind of incredible when you only allow two 3-pointers) as the Grizzlies seemed to be able to get whatever they wanted inside, culminating in some real signs of frustration. 11 free-throw attempts for Memphis in the quarter did the damage, with Ibaka picking up a technical foul after voicing his displeasure for getting called for a foul for trying to disrupt action at the top of the arc. With just over 30 seconds remaining, it was Nick Nurse’s turn, picking one up for his star player after Temple appeared to have lowered his shoulder into Kyle Lowry and sent him to the ground.

Six points and two assists from Shelvin Mack hurt, too, but the early season has shown the Raptors are willing to concede midrange twos if it means minimizing the three-ball and forays to the paint. The Grizzlies just happened to be hitting them at a very high clip. One aspect that helped that was Conley’s floater game, a real thing of beauty since he’s so very comfortable doing so with his off-hand. After using a screen to gain separation, it’s the use of his hesitation dribble with his right hand that tricks the defender into playing for the pass instead of the shot, and that’s when he tosses up a delightful fluffy pancake through the hoop.

After a Gasol three-pointer and Anderson bucket gave the Grizzlies a 17-point lead — their largest of the game — to open the third quarter, the Raptors’ adjustments began to pay off. Mostly, it seemed as though their defensive intensity in pick-and-roll coverage ramped up and instead of getting caught up with the whistle, challenged themselves to get in better position. After making six of their first 10 shots, Memphis missed seven of their last 10 to end the quarter and Lowry took over proceedings on the offensive end. He had 10 points and three assists in the quarter, continuing to find Ibaka in the slot, catering to Leonard, and hunting down his own threes with vigor.

Side note 1: Ibaka was able to get his shot off the pick-and-pop every time he wanted. Gasol just wasn’t there for it and considering the return to his defensive peak this season, that was disappointing on the Spaniard’s part.

Side note 2: It’s always fun seeing Leonard have any kind of reaction to something a teammate does, and it looked as though he was ready to voice his displeasure over Lowry not getting a call for the and-1 but thought better of it after the shot went in anyway.

I don’t know if Lowry can lead the league in assists and be this aggressive in looking for his shot, but with all the Nash comparisons, another that sticks out to me is being conscious of just how valuable his own scoring is. He mustn’t lose sight of that as the season goes and the Raptors, I think, will be at their best when Lowry is their second-best scorer while facilitating and making his teammates better at the high frequency he does anyway.

Having cut the deficit to just four entering the fourth quarter, it seemed just a matter of time before the Raptors took over the ball game. The defense continued to be in lockdown mode, holding Memphis to just 7-of-19 shooting and just two free-throw attempts (which Conley shocking missed both) and the offense hit another gear courtesy Leonard’s improved playmaking and VanVleet’s perfect night.

Nurse gave Valanciunas and Ibaka a look together in Atlanta, and now after prioritizing maximizing the on-court time Lowry and Leonard spent together, he may feel at ease with that chemistry to start staggering them more often. It worked like a charm against the Grizzlies, and after Memphis pushed the lead back up to nine just three minutes into the fourth, Toronto came storming back with back-to-back-to-back triples from OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and VanVleet to tie the game.

The team has been getting good looks throughout the course of the season but has struggled to knock them down, but based on their shooting the past few nights, the floodgates may have opened just in time for this crucial stretch the Raptors have ahead. In a matter of three games, Toronto has vaulted from 24th in the league with 33.8 percent shooting to 16th at 35.1 percent, and the best may be yet to come. The chemistry between the players is improving, and just as it was good to get Leonard comfortable with Lowry to open the year, the next stretch may be about getting him on board with the bench unit.

Part of the process in Leonard returning to true form as a top three player in this league is getting game reps in against quality defenses that force him into uncomfortable positions and quicker decisions. He has now played 16 of the Raptors’ 22 games, and this was easily the best he’s looked in terms of moving the ball out of traps and pushing the ball in the open court to find open teammates. That he did so without the telepathic connection he has with Green on the floor is all the more encouraging and bodes well for Nurse’s flexibility with closing lineups going forward.

VanVleet was the primary beneficiary of all the attention Leonard garnered, collecting three triples in the fourth off Leonard pushes in semi-transition, and it’s starting to look as though Steady Freddy is back. Since being held scoreless in Boston, he’s averaged 12.3 points and 4.8 assists while knocking down 12-of-21 attempts from deep.

Seriously, this team has another level it can get to if the bench comes around, especially if one of Lowry and Leonard is there to shepherd them.

So, it’s on to Golden State now with the three-point shooting much improved, the defense showing longer stretches of effectiveness, and Nurse’s rotations coming together nicely as well. Bring on the champs.

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