If the Raptors are headed into the exam week of schedules, consider the first test aced.
Due to poor execution and lazy defense, Toronto fell behind by 17 points to the Memphis Grizzlies. They rallied in the second half, though, and thanks to some outstanding star-plus-bench play and a season’s best shooting night from Fred VanVleet, the Raptors got their most satisfying win of 2018-19 thus far — beating the Grizzlies 122-114.
Leading the way for the Raptors was, get this, the combination of Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard.
Both played 37 minutes, as Lowry scored a team-high 24 points and Leonard had 17 points and ten boards. More importantly, though, they played some really important minutes late in the third and through the fourth. After Nick Nurse rode his starters ten minutes after halftime to chip away at the Grizzlies’ 12-point lead, Lowry and Leonard took turns propping up bench lineups until late in the fourth.
The result was a resounding success, as the two stars combined for 11 assists in the game, creating wide open looks for a Raptors offence that previously looked lost against a long, difficult Memphis team. They even did it... for each other.
The other big beneficiary of those assists was Fred VanVleet. VanVleet made all six of his shots, including three from downtown, to score 18 points off the bench. What’s more, he was assigned Mike Conley for all of his second half minutes, doing a great job of throwing the all-star off of his game. Conley still had 20, but needed 19 shots to get there. Whatever damage he was doing off the pick and roll in the first half slowed down when Fred was in his grill.
The game started looking great for the visiting side. The Raptors opened up on an 8-0 run, but a quick timeout from J.B. Bickerstaff resulted in a 9-2 run for Memphis. The Grizzlies seemingly surprised Toronto with their physicality, as they picked up a few buckets on offensive rebounds.
They also started to set a theme for the first half, as any pick and roll featuring one of Conley or Marc Gasol turned deadly. Though both teams shot over 60 per cent in the first half, it was Memphis who went into the break up 12, thanks to a flurry of mid-range floaters, dump-off passes, and swing sequences.
Give Nick Nurse some credit here, though, because the adjustments made over halftime instantly affected the game. A couple Gasol shots stretched the Memphis lead to 17, but Toronto switched their defence to a zone just before the midway point of the third. This slowed the Grizzlies down just enough, as the Raptors starters chipped away at the lead on the other end.
As the starters turned over to a Lowry-plus-bench lineup to close the quarter, Toronto got the lead down to four.
To start the fourth, presto change-o, it was now Kawhi with the bench unit. The combination of Leonard and OG Anunoby blew up a few pick and rolls from the Grizzlies, while VanVleet started to make shots on the other end.
Late in the game, the Raptors were the team that had the daggers, despite Memphis having more clutch experience.
So, this is the 10th time in 11 games that the Grizzlies are playing clutch minutes (+/- 5 points in the final 5 minutes). It's only the 7th time the Raptors have played clutch minutes in 22 games this season.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) November 28, 2018
A VanVleet three put the Raptors up four with 3:27 left. That was followed by another, then a Kawhi three with just over a minute. That made it an eight-point lead and sealed the win.
The win improves Toronto to a league-best 18-4, as they look forward to hosting the Warriors on Thursday night. Memphis falls to 12-8.
- Marc Gasol is still a superstar. The man dropped a game-high 27 points on 14 shots, making 4-of-6 from three, and was a matchup nightmare for both Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors managed to offset this, just enough, with some aggressive guard defence to make the roll/pop passes more difficult. This is just another way VanVleet impacted the game.
- Toronto got rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. into foul trouble early on, and he struggled to shake it. Though he looked like he could be a problem when he was in (he and JaMychal Green crushed the Raptors in rebounds for a few minutes in the first half), the Raptors benefitted from him only playing 19 minutes.
- It’s great to see the bench get to know each other a bit this week, as C.J. Miles and OG Anunoby return from injury. Miles made both his threes tonight, and generally the bench looked more fluid, even when they were out there without Leonard or Lowry. It’s a work in progress, but it is progress.
- One time for Serge Ibaka, who made seven shots in this game that nobody will talk about. Two months into the season, it feels like we shouldn’t be taking Ibaka’s consistency for granted, but he was so solid on offence tonight, on a night when the Raptors needed to pass the 120 mark to get a win.