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Five thoughts on last night: Raptors 122, Grizzlies 114

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It took the Toronto Raptors about 2.5 quarters to wake up, but when they finally did, they closed out the Memphis Grizzliers with a stellar 20 minute run of play. 

Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 122, Memphis Grizzlies 114, Fred VanVleet Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies played an incredibly entertaining game last night, with the Raptors falling behind by a dozen at halftime, picking up the intensity in the third quarter and riding a stellar fourth-quarter effort on both ends to the win. Here’s what we saw:

Pascal Siakam with the Court Vision

I didn’t write about Pascal Siakam last game, and that’s highly unusual for this column, so here are a couple of great first-quarter assists to satiate your Siakam hunger.

First, here he is head-manning the ball, finding Serge Ibaka ahead of the pack:

Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 122, Memphis Grizzlies 114, Pascal Siakam court vision

And here is, driving baseline, drawing the D, and finding Ibaka for the dunk:

Five thoughts recap: Toronto Raptors 122, Memphis Grizzlies 114, Pascal Siakam passing

Neither of these is a “wow, how did he do that!?” pass; they’re both pretty basic. But, as I’ve said many times this year — Siakam wouldn’t have seen those passes last year or the year before. His ability to play with his head up and to see the whole floor is improving game by game, and it’s a treat to see.

Who Says Memphis Can’t Play Fast? For 2.5 Quarters They Did…

The Raptors had scored 120+ points in each of their last thee games, were averaging 116 points per game on the season coming in, and were third in the league in offensive rating, at 113.7. But the Grizzlies were on the opposite end, dead last in both points per game and pace, and 23rd in offensive rating. Grit and grind, right?

Something had to give, and it turns out, it was the grind. The Raptors jumped out to an 8-0 lead, then the Grizzlies went on a 9-2 run — all in the first three minutes. And that’s how the first half went — fast paced, lots of scoring, lots of runs.

And so you’d think that’d favour the Raptors, yet there they were, giving up 71 points in the half, and finding themselves down by 17 points midway through the third quarter.

The Memphis Grizzlies, with a 71-point half? Yikes.

The Raptors’ defense finally appeared in the second half; numbers-wise, the third doesn’t look that impressive on paper: the Grizzlies still scored 26, and shot 45% and 37.5% from downtown. Even their true shooting percentage was an excellent 57.5%. But the Raptors did a much better job defending on the perimeter, and didn’t let Mike Conley and Gasol pick them apart quite as easily; despite the combined 60 points scored, the period definitely felt like a more defensive battle. The Raptors even went to a zone for a significant stretch, and it was effective, getting the Raptors five stops on six Memphis possessions, and an 11-3 Raptors run.

In the fourth, the Raptors’ D was even better; the Grizzlies shot only 37% and the TS% was down to 42.8. The Raptors outscored Memphis by 12 in the frame, closed the game on a 26-9 run, and won the second half 63-43.

Did the Grizzlies run out of steam, playing such a fast pace? Did the Raptors lock in more defensively? A bit of both I’d say. At the end of the day, the game was definitely played at a pace the Raptors were more comfortable with, and Memphis couldn’t sustain it.

Nick Nurse’s Rotations Were on Point

Head coach Nick Nurse started the night making a somewhat bold decision — starting Serge Ibaka over Jonas Valanciunas. Memphis, of course, started Marc Gasol, a slow-moving, big-bodied centre — one who you might think Valanciunas would match up well with. But Gasol is much more of a perimeter player these days, launching three-pointers regularly and controlling the offence from the top of the paint. With that in mind Ibaka is indeed the better choice.

But what Nurse did in the second half was even better. We have the aforementioned zone defence, of course, but rotations-wise, with the starters humming in the third, Nurse let them run a bit longer than they normally would. Kyle Lowry, in fact, played the entire third quarter. (More on him in a minute.)

Then in the fourth, with Lowry already at 30 minutes and Kawhi Leonard not far behind, Nurse did something we haven’t seen much of yet, staggering the two of them on-off for several minutes to let each of them get a breather, and ensuring one of the two led bench-heavy units on the floor. Nurse also stuck with hot hand Fred VanVleet, who didn’t miss a shot all night (or a minute in the fourth), and had two clutch triples down the stretch. Serge Ibaka had the magic touch from midrange, and he got extended run as well in the second half. Nurse also called a couple of very (ahem) timely timeouts, one with about five minutes left, after a couple frantic back-and-forth sequences, to calm things down and get Leonard and Ibaka back in the game; and a second one 90 seconds later to let Lowry catch his breath for the final three minutes.

Maybe this isn’t rocket science. The Raptors don’t have any back-to-backs coming up, so rest isn’t as high a concern. Sometimes you need to rely on your starters, or a hot hand, a little more, but knowing when and where is a big part of coaching. Playing the guys that are playing best in a close game makes sense… but there are ways to manage those minutes, while still giving your team a chance to win, and Nurse was excellent at it tonight.

Who Needs Rest? Not Kyle Lowry. Yet...

Kyle Lowry played the entire third quarter last night, which the Raptors needed, as they played that quarter to a +8 (and a +13 after the Grizzlies had built upon their halftime lead); as you’d expect from 2018 Kyle, he was controlling the offense from beginning to end, but he also picked up his D after a subpar first half on that end. He ended the night with 37 minutes under his belt, and a team-high 14 shot attempts.

In 2015, and 2017, and maybe even a little in 2016, Lowry wore down as the season progressed — playing hurt in the ‘15 playoffs and missing significant time at the end of the ‘17 season, and more time in the playoffs. That’s why it was so heartening to see the rest of the team take on a bigger load last year, and allow Lowry to rest more; he stayed fresh the whole season and was the best Raptor in the postseason.

This year the rest of the team, despite its improvements, has simply not performed well without Lowry on the floor. If they don’t shape up — and I’m looking mainly at Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, although also some side glances at coach Nurse for how he’s using the bench units — I worry that we’ll need more Lowry nights like last night. And doesn’t bode well for Lowry’s health in the postseason, especially as he approaches age 33. VanVleet's play last night, and the last three games, really, gives me a little bit of confidence that he’s finding his stride at least.

A Little Bit of Credit to the Grizzlies Game Ops Crew… but Not a Lot

So you know how the Milwaukee Bucks play the Barney theme song during the Raptors’ player introductions, as a dig at the whole dinosaur thing? The Grizzlies play the Jurassic Park theme music.

I love this choice, because while it’s still a dig at the Raptors — “oh, you named your team after some creatures that appeared in a movie that was popular when you got your franchise?” — it is, of course, an awesome, majestic piece of music.

John Wiliams FTW, amirite? It would probably be a little goofy for the Raptors to use this music themselves, but I would love to see more opponents incorporate into Raptor player intros!

Back to the Grizzlies game ops though — I could certainly do without the Grizzlies in-arena host butchering “Mississauga,” and, amazingly, “Edmonton,” in a third-quarter timeout bit.

They also played “Born in the U.S.A.” while commemorating the service of veterans and armed service personnel, which, naturally, is a terrible choice (how does anyone in 2018 not know that’s an anti-military, anti-patriotism song?), so they still have some work to do on the musical choices.

You win some, you lose some, I guess.

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The Raptors now have 18 wins, and those wins have come on three six-game win streaks. They haven’t been able to crack that seven-win mark, and they’ll have a tough time of it on Thursday, when the Golden State Warriors come to town. Should be a good one!