For their third game in four nights, the Toronto Raptors travelled to Memphis to take on the Grizzlies. The team was clearly feeling the effects of the road trip, and came out flat on defense. In desperate need of a spark, the team got one when Nick Nurse took his second technical foul in defense of Fred VanVleet, getting ejected from the game in the third quarter. Down 94-85 at the point of the ejection, the Raptors roared back to win the game 128-113.
It was not easy, however, as some adversity would be piled onto the team early. Already without OG Anunoby, things got even more precarious for the Raptors as Kyle Lowry went down with back spasms after only playing eight minutes and would not return for the remainder of the game. Still, the NBA, at this point, stops for nothing, so there was a game to be played.
In the first quarter, Norman Powell continued to be a fascinating subject for sports psychologists studying the effects that being in the starting lineup has on confidence, as he scorched the twine, hitting all three of his shots from deep and adding a midrange jumper on his way to 11 points in the frame.
Norm's confidence is on another level pic.twitter.com/BAuqfVwfng— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 9, 2021
Although it was Norm leading the charge, the entire Raptors team had a solid offensive output in the first. Their defense, however, left much to be desired.
Undisciplined and disjointed, Toronto’s defense was the reason they could score 35 in the quarter and only leave it up by a point. Their sloppy play allowed Memphis to live at the charity stripe, continuing their season-long trend of excessive fouling. The Raptors also struggled to communicate effectively, leaving Memphis shooters open from three on multiple occasions.
The defense continued to struggle in the second quarter as Jonas Valanciunas realized that it is much easier to have a revenge game against the Raptors when Aron Baynes, and not Marc Gasol, is the team’s centre. JV was a beast, racking up 14 boards to Baynes’ one in the first half as his physicality overwhelmed the Raptors. Toronto had no choice but to foul the big Lithuanian to keep him from doing even more damage, and he feasted at the free throw line.
Norm’s hot start continued into the second quarter, and Pascal Siakam started to get going as well. After some bad misses from deep, Siakam finally established some rhythm with his three-point shooting on his way to three makes beyond the arc in the second quarter — a positive sight for the Raptors as Siakam looked like he was nearly ready to abandon the three entirely this season.
Siakam also played a role in filling Lowry’s shoes. With VanVleet as the only active point guard on the roster when Lowry went down, the team had to adopt a point-guard-by-committee approach when VanVleet needed a break. Siakam was an effective distributor in the role, often initiating the offense and making smart, effective reads. He finished with six assists. That said, for all the positives offensively, the team still could not find a way to stop the Grizzlies.
Valanciunas’ destruction tour continued into the second half, causing the Raptors faithful to pine for their old big man as he sent their current big man to ride the pine. Baynes would not return after playing just a few minutes to start the half. With Baynes out, JV took it out on Chris Boucher. Off an offensive rebound, JV used his seemingly 100 pound advantage on Boucher to muscle under the basket for an easy two points. Valanciunas finished with a monstrous 27 points and 20 rebounds.
Late in the third quarter, with the Raptors down, was when Nick Nurse’s theatrical demonstration for the referees resulted in his second technical of the game and an ejection. The team really rallied, particularly defensively, after their coach was sent to the locker room. Their rotations tightened, their closeouts had some added fervour, and they were even able to control Valanciunas with organized team defense.
The defensive turnaround coincided with some offensive brilliance by Fred VanVleet, who added an excellent night of his own to join Powell and Siakam. VanVleet was masterful in the second half, getting to the rim, hitting tough mid-rangers, and finding his teammates for some easy buckets on his way to 32 points on only 14 shots and nine assists.
When it was all said and done, Powell, Siakam and VanVleet had combined for 93 points, and they all contributed in turning an ugly three quarters into a comfortable win in the fourth. From the moment Nurse was ejected until the final buzzer sounded, the Raptors outscored the Grizzlies 43-19.
The time after Nurse’s ejection served as a reminder of how good this team can be when they are locked in and communicating defensively. They overwhelmed the Grizzlies with speed and length, moving as one cohesive unit.
That said, they can’t rely on an external spark every night, and will need to bring that same intensity from the jump against quality opponents. For now, however, they have something to build on as they continue their road trip on Wednesday, taking on the Washington Wizards.