Raptors beat punchy Grizzlies as regular service restored

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It’s understandable if the Raptors chose not to pay too much heed to Friday’s result. The Raptors chalked it up to an off-night and looked quickly to move on, though I’m sure the loss was deflationary for the Raptors confidence no matter how you might slice it. A bounce-back was needed and the Memphis Grizzlies in the guise of their counterparts of yesteryear beckoned, with the rivalry that never was all but extinguished and only resurrected for appearances sake. A subplot were the “returns” of Jonas Valanciunas and Marc Gasol, but who honestly cares about that? We have a bounce-back to worry about.

The consistency in which an offense generates clean looks is ultimately what separates great ones from good, and the Raptors have been very consistent (save for the Boston game) at doing that. When those looks weren’t dropping early you could either view it as a continuation of the funk from Friday, or simply shots not dropping. It was the latter.

Pascal Siakam was the main area of concern heading into this one, with Vivek Jacob breaking down his bubble struggles. One of the sources of trouble for Siakam has been that defenses are recognizing his desire to handle the ball in more and more situations – up the court, after a hand-off, or after a point-to-wing. He’s been surprised by more guys having success swiping at his high-dribbles and is in a period of adjusting to that. His two late threes when the Grizzlies were making the last of their 6 runs was the doorslammer, as the Memphis broadcasting crew would say it. His game-highlights below.

It wasn’t Siakam however that righted the ship that got off to a slow start, it was Normal Powell who was running routes around the Memphis defense. Powell’s off-ball positioning has always been a strength and now that he’s complemented it with a confident drive, it has opened up avenues that were hitherto unexplored. Defenses make it a point to cheat off him on the weak side and Powell has recognized the right cut in those situations with excellent presentation for the ball. The three-point shot when falling becomes gravy as he remains the most likely guard to be open.

It was fun to see him get some run in with Matt Thomas, where you basically have two guards who can curl, with one a threat to pop and the other to dive. After being hit by a Ja Mortant punch to start, Thomas was injected at the start of the second and provided instant offense – two threes off curls with a third one popping in and out. It cut the eight point Memphis lead to two and set the Raptors up for their ascendence in the second, with Powell and Siakam leading the way.

The Raptors guards give up quickness to Morant who had some highlight-reel stuff here, but that was to be expected. It was the pesky Dillon Brooks that caught the Raptors unaware. His ability and willingness to shoot from the shunned-upon long-two range kept the Grizzlies within striking distance. Splitting traps, whisking past his man and getting into the underbelly of the perimeter defense is where he found his living. It’s almost become a space that we don’t even guard anymore, a place where shots can be found if you dare to enrage the analytical Gods. Memphis leads the league in floaters and that’s entirely due to their guards being able to get in this area and unleash their trebuchets, as can be seen in Brooks’ shot chart.

Dillon Brooks Shot Chart – 11-26 FG, 25 pts

If this were a two-person fighting game where each fighter had a “health” component to them, then the Raptors health would best be represented by their defense’s capacity to keep them in games when the offense is stuttering. That is what ultimately makes them a title contender. Last night the best statistical reflection of that quality was Memphis shooting 41% – 6% below their season average.

In the heart of that defense is Serge Ibaka. He wasn’t going up against offensive juggernauts in Anthony Tolliver, JV and whoever was caught on the rotation guarding him, so Ibaka had a little more space to wander and supply ample help defense against those guards finding their way through perimeter line. All this to say that if you view the Raptors defense as a system of layers, there’s always likely to be one layer which is holding his own, and in this one it was Ibaka. He had 12 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks – a complete defensive game, which is held in weird contrast when you see JV with zero points (not that the two were always guarding each other).

Assessing the original goal of a “bounce-back” game, though the win was there the Raptors missed out on an opportunity to put Memphis to bed after building up an 18 point lead in the third. Memphis, through Brooks, Morant and Brandon Clarke kept punching back, forcing extended minutes out of Siakam (36), Lowry (37) and VanVleet (35). It was to be expected because unlike the Magic the other night, Memphis is in a fight for the final playoff spot, a fight palpable in their commitment to the game.

I see Samson has handed out the Reggie Evans award in the podcast to Marc Gasol:

I can’t speak much about Gasol in this game because he is more or less a constant for me. Early on in his Raptors career he had a tendency to pass up clean looks and once he sorted that out he’s been on a constant trajectory. He’s akin to the The Score’s stock – which is hovering around a ridiculous 70 cents. Yours truly had a chance to dive into the investor relation reports and by the looks of it all bets are on gambling. So if you believe in gambling being the future then that’s the stock for you.  Though at this point my view is that the only way that stock is rising if someone buys them out. It’s crazy how arguably having the best product in the industry for the niche does little for the share price. I digress and return to Gasol – skinny or fat, his game is enjoyably predictable and boring.

Gasol takes up enough space in the paint that even when he’s not actively boxing out he’s boxing out. His body type is such that simply being in the area of action causes enough congestion that offensive rebounders can’t get to the ball.  When he is pressuring up top the fast recovery of the Raptors defense is affording Gasol half a second extra to recover to his position, resetting the defense sooner. With the exception of one play in transition where nobody knew where anyone was, Ibaka and Gasol are unlikely to be “trailing” a play as it develops.  Instead, they have sufficient runway to position themselves to where they may need to be. The Grizzlies were a far different proposition than Boston in this regard – whereas Boston’s quickness and crispness of passing had us chasing the play, the Grizzlies lack that level of cohesiveness. Ibaka and Gasol, complemented by a stringy and stingy defense, found their lives rather comfortable.

The Raptors clinch the second seed and would face the Brooklyn Nets if the playoffs started today. They also win the Atlantic Division for whatever that’s worth. The only time that was ever appropriate to celebrate was the first time we did it with Chris Bosh. For now, chop it up and make some masks.

Here’s Es with WHOSE TAKE:

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