The Toronto Raptors’ current road trip has been far from ideal. While a win against the league-leading Golden State Warriors wasn’t exactly a realistic expectation, the Raptors are a disappointing 1-3 in the first four of their six-game trip. Granted, the Raptors have been missing OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam is still just seven games removed from a six-month absence. But while the offensive production has been surprisingly solid, the team’s defense — the very core of its supposed identity — has often looked disorganized and out of whack.
After a couple days off, the Raptors now head to Memphis to take on Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies, who are coming off a last-second victory against the Utah Jazz — you might remember the Jazz from stomping all over the Raptors earlier on this trip.
Ja Morant continues to slice through defenses with his undeniable athleticism, and with Jaren Jackson Jr. healthy and Desmond Bane taking a leap in his second season, the Grizzlies are a formidable opponent. The smaller Raptors will also have to contend with the size of center Steven Adams down low. In short, Toronto has their work cut out for them. But Siakam seems to be returning to form while Fred VanVleet continues to will this team to at least the hopes of victory. With those two leading the charge, this one is certainly a winnable game. Here are the details for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch:
TSN4, 8:00 PM EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Khem Birch
Memphis – Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams
Toronto – OG Anunoby (hip – questionable), Precious Achiuwa (shoulder – questionable), Yuta Watanabe (calf – questionable)
Memphis – Dillon Brooks (hamstring – questionable), De’Anthony Melton (groin – out)
Hitting the rookie wall?
One month into his NBA career, Scottie Barnes has played 558 minutes. During his lone season at Florida State, he played a total of 595 minutes. He’s likely to surpass that number this week. Given the severe uptick in minutes, the improved competition, and the effects of a sprained thumb, it’s no wonder that Scottie has struggled a little the last few games.
He’s shooting just one-for-10 in the paint over the last two games, and missed all four of his attempts at the rim (he was 38-for-57 at the rim before those games). The “rookie wall” is practically impossible to avoid for first-year players to some extent, and having seen Scottie at his most upbeat and smiley, it’s apparent that he’s dealing with some fatigue. Still, a tired/hurt Barnes is active and skilled enough to fill out the box score and make some great passes and rebounds. While he looked a bit passive early on vs Golden State, it was nice to see Barnes play with a sense of urgency and look more for his own shot in the second half. Another promising sign is that Barnes fulfilled Nick Nurse’s wish, hitting a couple of open threes on Sunday. Hopefully he’ll continue to capitalize on those looks and counter the defense’s tendency to collapse on him.
Over the first few weeks of the season, Precious Achiuwa showed some exciting flashes as a big who could run the floor and even handle the ball in transition. He also made some glaring mistakes, and took a number of offensive possessions into his own hands when they really should’ve been in someone else’s. As a result, Achiuwa put up a three-game stretch with five-for-27 shooting, as well as a separate two-for-14 stretch over two games. On the season, he’s shooting just 48% at the rim — a truly rough percentage for someone his size.
In two games since returning from his absence due to shoulder tendinitis, though, Achiuwa has meshed well with the bench unit, making an impact with his physicality and energy. He’s done noticeably better at playing within his role and not forcing looks, making eight of his 14 field goal attempts since returning. Achiuwa is unfortunately questionable with tendinitis again tonight, but it’s clear that when he’s on the court, the 22-year-old has the ability to contribute to winning basketball — as long as he isn’t forcing it.
Nick Nurse loves few things more than stopping opposing star players. Of course, most coaches have that goal in mind, but with a personnel of hard-nosed defenders at his disposal, Nurse’s Raptors are actually pretty adept at doing it (see: Stephen Curry shooting two-for-10 vs the Raptors on Sunday). Tonight, Nurse will likely try the same thing against young star Ja Morant, who’s averaging 25.5 points and seven assists per game, and is a human torpedo who might just end your career if he finds you below the rim. Fred VanVleet — of making-Steph-Curry’s-life-hell fame — will likely draw the assignment, but expect to see aggressive traps against Morant off screens.
While Curry certainly endured an off-night against the Raptors, you might remember that the Warriors nevertheless won the game pretty handily. This is because a) the Raptors still need to improve their defensive rotations to minimize the open shots created by their aggressive traps, and b) the Warriors utilize a beautiful read-and-react offense that is tailor-made for tormenting overzealous opponents and finding the perfect shot. But don’t expect the Raptors to tone down their star-smothering efforts. Instead, look for them to build on their defensive connectivity, which can only really be developed in real game action. Amazingly, Morant is seventh in the league in points from within five feet. Without much of a rim-protecting presence, the Raptors will need their rotations to be on point — and they’ll take some bad shooting luck from Morant’s kick-out options, too.
Side note: Yuta Watanabe, a great help defender who solidifies the Raptors’ aggressive schemes, would be a welcome addition to the team. Regardless of his status, it’ll be nice to see the warm welcome from his former fanbase.