Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 108-99 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the fifth of eight seeding games ahead of the 2020 NBA playoffs.
One — Business: The Raptors had to close it out at the end because the Grizzlies made a desperate run, but they were in control from start to finish. Aside from committing a season-high 25 turnovers — which was mostly because Kyle Lowry had nine of his own — the Raptors put in a composed effort on both ends. This is the type of bounce back performance that was needed following their lopsided loss to the Celtics. Sure, there are plenty of mistakes to fix, but they got back on track.
Two — Sharp: This is the type of performance the Raptors have been waiting for with Pascal Siakam, who scored 26 points on 9-of-16 for his best effort inside the bubble. Siakam’s struggles have become a topic of conversation, especially after his stinker against the Celtics, and the Raptors did a good job of finding Siakam in his spots. Early on, they screened for Siakam away from the ball so he could get deeper catches to finish in the post. Then, he played a screener, with possessions popping out to three or rolling to the basket. As his confidence grew, Siakam attacked off the dribble and got to the rim. He can still play much better than he did tonight, but it’s a good start.
Three — Clutch: One of the oddities about Siakam is that even if he’s struggling throughout the game, he has a knack for finishing strong. With the Grizzlies cutting it to a five-point deficit, it was Siakam who drained two threes — first on a tidy stepback over Dillon Brooks, the second off a late-shot clock scramble — to close out the win. Siakam’s true-shooting percentage in clutch scenarios is over 60 percent on the season, which compares favourably to most of his fellow all-stars.
Four — Pitbull: With Lowry entangled in a 48-minute quarrel with the officials, it was Fred VanVleet who supplied the composure on both ends. VanVleet was efficient in running the offense by beating his man off the dribble, getting into the lane, and kicking it out for open looks. More importantly, it was VanVleet who locked down Rookie of the Year favourite Ja Morant, who shot 7-of-19 from the floor with four turnovers. VanVleet came up with his second clutch stop in five games, as he rotated over and ripped Anthony Tolliver on what should have been an easy layup in the fourth, to instead find Lowry for a reverse layup that sealed the win. VanVleet has arguably been the Raptors’ best player in the bubble thus far.
Five — Unfortunate: It was an unhappy reunion for longtime Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, who finished scoreless in 27 minutes. The Raptors made a point to pressure Valanciunas throughout, as Marc Gasol pressed up on him near halfcourt to begin the game. Gasol is absolutely terrifying on defense when he is locked in, and as with Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic before him, Valanciunas had absolutely nothing to work with. It got so bad that in the fourth quarter, after officials sent Valanciunas to the line on a soft foul call on Serge Ibaka, the big Lithuanian still wasn’t able to score despite being a 78 percent foul shooter for his career. It’s unfair to use one game as a barometer for anything, but this is reflective of why the Raptors made the Gasol-for-Valanciunas swap. Gasol’s defense was the final piece of the championship puzzle.
Six — Solid: Norman Powell looked much more comfortable in this win, mostly because he was able to have opportunities to score in transition. Powell saw more time with the starters, who are much more robust defensively than the bench, and those stops created chances for him to shine. Powell took minutes from Lowry and VanVleet, and he was dynamic as an off guard. Still, there is the concern of getting Powell to click with the bench, but there’s another three games to figure that out. One solution would be to have Powell and Ibaka playing more of a two-man game, as they always seem to have success when Powell gets a head of steam to the rim with Ibaka trailing behind him.
Seven — Energetic: Ibaka was not too shabby himself, as he notched a double-double in 25 minutes. There were still times where Ibaka squandered chances by making the read too late, but his overall energy and intensity was much higher than in previous games. Ibaka was a load on the offensive glass, collecting four offensive rebounds, and was a presence at the rim. His pick-and-roll defense was also solid, which helped to shut down Morant and Valanciunas.
Eight — Searching: Nick Nurse’s patience is running out with the second unit. Terence Davis missed two open threes in the first quarter and was benched for the night. Those minutes went instead to Matt Thomas, who promptly cashed two threes in his first shift. The issue with Thomas is that he’s a liability on defense, but truth be told, Davis is also making just as many mistakes. Davis is still the more dynamic option between the two, but his inconsistency is maddening. At least Thomas is reliable as a dead-eye shooter.
Nine — Still searching: Similarly, Nurse ditched Rondae Hollis-Jefferson after another low-impact shift. Nurse dusted off Chris Boucher, who didn’t produce much better, but deserved a look given how little Hollis-Jefferson was producing. One of the main issues with the bench is that Hollis-Jefferson and Ibaka are not compatible as a frontcourt on offense. Usually, Ibaka gets most of the touches as the lone big out there, but Hollis-Jefferson provides so little shooting that defenders completely ignore him to help elsewhere, which means he needs to hold the ball to provide on that end. The solution there might be to extend Anunoby’s minutes and play him more as a reserve power forward behind Siakam.
Ten — Appreciation: Even with the difficult season and the truncated schedule, the Raptors have won 50 games for the fifth-straight campaign, and captured their sixth Atlantic division title in seven years. Winning is now the new norm with this team, but it really wasn’t that way for the longest time. It’s a testament to the importance of leadership. With Masai Ujiri pulling the strings, and Lowry leading the way, the Raptors have become the model franchise that others strive to replicate. They aren’t a free-agent market, but they are the best in the league at developing talent. Compare this core to the 2016 roster that first hit the 50-win mark: It’s an entirely new team. Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby and Powell were all acquired with the 23rd pick or later (in VanVleet’s case, not picked at all) and now they form the championship core along with Lowry, who continues to set the tone for how they play and how they defend. They have been one of the best stories in sports, and there’s more winning ahead.
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