Nick Nurse watched the good bits of the Toronto Raptors’ 128-113 win over the Memphis Grizzlies alone with a television in the visitors’ locker room, able to voice his joy and frustration with no fear of reprisal from the referees.
Up until Nurse’s ejection, Toronto’s game had been a mirror image of their previous loss to the Atlanta Hawks. They couldn’t stop fouling, and they were allowing their frustrations to impact their effort level. Furthermore, Jonas Valanciunas, like Clint Capela for Atlanta, was wreaking havoc. Aron Baynes was an offensive ghost, allowing Valanciunas to pack the paint against any Raptor driver, without bothering to recover to Baynes on a kickout. And when Chris Boucher entered the game, Toronto couldn’t corral Valanciunas defensively. They couldn’t keep him off the offensive glass when contesting shots, and they were forced to double him with the ball, opening up easy passing lanes for the former Raptor.
Then Nurse picked up an accidental second technical — he was unaware that he had earned his first, with the officials initially giving that technical to Pascal Siakam — and was ejected from the game.
Toronto’s three technical fouls on the night only built their current league-leading number of techs. It has been part of a running trend that the Raptors both foul too much — they are currently third in the league in most fouls per game — and complain too much on receiving those fouls. It has been a problem, and it seemed like once again, the Raptors would let it derail their evening.
Instead Toronto responded like a team playing for its life. Defensively, they started blitzing, rotating, attacking. They were the aggressors, rather than passively accepting their lumps from Valanciunas. They held Valanciunas, who finished with 27 points and 20 rebounds, to a relatively modest 9 points and 6 rebounds in the second half. They flew knockdown shooters in Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane off the arc. They forced turnovers and scored easy buckets in transition before Memphis’ great defense could set up.
Toronto followed the example set by their should-be All-Star, Fred VanVleet. He was marvelous from start to finish, leading the way in every facet of the game. He scored 32 points on only 14 shots, as he rained hellfire from deep and the mid-range out of the 1-5 pick-and-roll. He split defenders, euro-stepped through the lane, and drew 14 free throws. His passing was sublime, as he kept his dribble alive and manipulated defenders into jumping non-existent passing lanes. Late in the game, he held the ball to kill the clock, drove to the rim against a scrambling defense, baited defenders into jumping to contain a pass to the weak corner that didn’t come, and turned to hit Chris Boucher behind him for the uncontested dunk. VanVleet was a puppet master.
“You could see how determined he was, how he was running the team, how he was leading,” said Nurse. “Big-time leading. And he was just making sure we were executing really well at both ends. And he was a big part of that, without question, he was really leading the team tonight in a big fashion.”
VanVleet wasn’t Toronto’s only leader. Pascal Siakam finished with an equal 32 points, as he shot 5-of-8 from deep and attacked the rim with impunity when Baynes wasn’t on the floor to clog the paint. HIs defense, especially in the paint, was the tip of Toronto’s spear during the second-half comeback. He is looking more and more like himself with each passing game. Norman Powell scored 29 points, and his jumper is looking so fluid and easy that anything that he tosses at the rim these days is sure to fall.
This may be burying the lede, but Kyle Lowry left the game in the first quarter with back spasms, not to return. Toronto triumphed regardless. Raptors Republic will keep you updated with regards to his status, but back spasms aren’t usually an injury that keep players sidelined for extended periods of time.
Toronto of course still has issues. They need to foul less, control their tempers, and find a starting center. We’ve known these things. That they were able to recover and beat a solid team in the Grizzlies is impressive and deserves celebrating.
Nurse was the first one to greet his players as they filed into the locker room. He was excited for them.
“It was fun post game in the locker room, the guys were enjoying it and they should,” he said. “Jeez, we talked about never getting too high or getting to low but you gotta enjoy the wins. You got to.”
It’s too hard to get them not to do it.”