There’s been more frustration than positivity around the Toronto Raptors lately, mostly due to the team’s inconsistencies. While it’s true that personnel has been in and out — OG Anunoby and Khem Birch remain sidelined due to injury — the Raptors haven’t been able to recapture their collective effort from earlier in the season, especially on the defensive end. While their shot-makers have been able to hold the fort on the other end, there’s been too many miscues for a team that’s planted its flag on defense over the past number of seasons.
That storyline continued tonight... before it changed.
Taking on the stocky Memphis Grizzlies, who boast a roster of downhill guards and bruising bigs, the Raptors looked overwhelmed in the first half — out-scored in the paint 22-8 and out-rebounded 16-5 in the first quarter alone. Then, they found their identity — creating chaos, making some shots, and coming back from 12 down at halftime to win on the road, 126-113.
The victory improves Toronto to 9-10 on the season, while Memphis falls to 9-9.
There were more flashly players for the Raptors tonight, and they’ll get their kudos in fair time, but I have to give it up first to Yuta Watanabe.
Returning from injury for his first regular season game this season, Watanabe came off the bench — mostly in Pascal Siakam’s minutes — and instantly provided the team what he needs to. When paired on the floor with Scottie Barnes in the second and third quarters, the Raptors had an entirely different energy on the defensive end. Those two kept the team afloat in the first half, spurring a 6-0 run in the middle of the second and grabbing five of the team’s 11 rebounds before the break.
Watanabe would finish with just three points, and that normally doesn’t deserve a paragraph so high up in a recap, but any onlooker could see what he injected into this Toronto team. When Anunoby eventually returns, that trio is going to be fearsome for opponents.
Of course, the Raptors actually had to do some scoring to win the game, and much was supplied by the backcourt pairing of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr.
Starting with the former, it feels like every Raptors win this season has included a couple fourth quarter minutes when VanVleet puts his cape on and decides to take over. Tonight, he had an absolutely brilliant sequence in what was a two-point Raptors lead: making a tough layup, setting up Siakam for an easy dunk, drilling a three, and drawing a foul on four consecutive offensive possessions. What was a close game was out of reach after that, as Toronto took a 120-111 lead on the Grizz.
VanVleet, who scored seven points in that stretch alone, had 23 points in total to go with seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Beside him, Trent Jr. led into that sequence with some tough shot-making of his own. The man just knows how to make a timely bucket, even if it does sometimes feel like this.
The fact is, Trent Jr. is good for a step back three per game and came with a lot more on Wednesday. Scoring a game-high 26 points, he went 8-for-17 from the field and added four assists.
While it ended well for Toronto, the first quarter didn’t give any hints to their performance later in the game. Defensive breakdowns came fast and furious for the starting unit, with both Siakam and Scottie Barnes giving up dunks on backdoor cuts, while Memphis lived in the paint. A 9-0 run after the midway point saw the Grizzlies open up a 26-15 lead, as Ja Morant picked apart an unenthusiastic Raptors defense, forcing his way into the paint and out-thinking Toronto’s centres in Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher on his patented creative finishes.
Morant would finish as the Grizzlies leading scorer with 23 points, while Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks had 20 apiece.
In the second, a bench unit led by Malachi Flynn gave the Raptors some juice. Setting up a cutting Dalano Banton for a layup, Flynn would help cut Memphis’ lead to five. Watanabe would come in for his first minutes shortly after and a scrambling, albeit offensively stunted Raptors lineup tried to keep the Grizzlies under Raps.
They did so — for a while — as the Raptors would get as close as four points at one juncture. When the starters returned, though, the same old defensive problems popped up. Siakam in particular was a step slow on rotations in the first half, while the lack of a centre continued to hurt Toronto’s ability to rebound and stay out of foul trouble. The Grizzlies would go into the break up 71-59.
Then, in the third quarter, some life.
As if a match had been lit under them at the break, the Raptors’ starters stormed out of halftime with a 7-0 run and looked like a completely different unit on defense. Barnes and Siakam were in passing lanes, VanVleet had his hands in every cookie jar, and the Grizzlies were finally seeing bodies on their downhill endeavours. A Trent Jr. three would tie the game at 76 and the Raptors remained close thanks to an out-of-body experience for Precious Achiuwa.
Previously forgettable, Achiuwa went nuts on offense, scoring all 17 of his points in the third quarter — nine of them on three-pointers (the first multi-three-pointer game of his career).
While the Raptors would still trail by one heading into the fourth, they were able to stay in the fight until the aforementioned flurry of VanVleet plays at the four-minute mark. Part of that treading water was another good stretch from Flynn, who finished with six points and four assists — doing everything right in a limited role of 12 minutes. Barnes was consistently excellent too, thriving with both bench and starting units, guarding Morant at times, and coming out with 17 points on 8-for-14 shooting.
Next up for the Raptors is a matchup with the Pacers on Friday.