With a 119-106 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Toronto Raptors dropped their eighth out of their 10 last games, as the team continues to grapple to stay true to their "identity."
Yes, there's “Vision 6-9." But this reiteration of the Raptors didn’t have the size and girth to match up with the Grizzlies’ bigs — who punished them early with oftentimes multiple opportunities per possession — or the necessary wings to knock down shots from range to keep up with a blistering three-point performance.
The defensive intensity the Raptors used to honour themselves on in years past has also evaded the team’s fabric, as Toronto now sits at 15-20 on the season, good enough for the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference.
"That play doesn’t give me much optimism at all. It's pretty unacceptable, the effort we gave,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse post-game.
Nurse stressed the amount of loose balls his squad didn’t take seriously, noting that “tipping balls away” and “being the first ones to the floor” has been their “identity.”
That effort was what kept the Raptors alive last season, when they made a second-half push to make the playoffs.
“We've been lacking playing to our identity … we're just a little bit disjointed right now. We've got to hang in there … they should get tired of this pretty soon.”
It was an energized effort from the Grizzlies, who came into Scotiabank Arena having lost two straight — a small slump that came after controversial and confident comments from Ja Morant on how he views Memphis compared to the rest of the Western Conference.
On Thursday, it was Morant who led the charge, putting up 19 points to go along with a career-high 17 assists and a handful of highlight slams.
“I was able to get in my sweet spot,” said Morant, on how he was able to progress throughout the game, gaining confidence from his teammates making shots.
The Raptors didn’t have an answer for Morant, who early on was able to set the pace and get his teammates involved, from his big men to his marksmen. The Grizzlies shot an impressive 44 percent from deep, compared to the Raptors' 34 percent.
When the Grizzlies missed, Steven Adams — among others — terrorized the Raptors on the boards. The New Zealand native finished with a game-high 17 rebounds. Eight of those were offensive, as the Raptors gave up a total of 14 offensive rebounds in the first half and 17 for the game — the most for an opponent this season.
With Fred VanVleet out of the lineup, the Raptors started off with bigs Christian Koloko and Juancho Hernangomez, but they were no match for the Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr. and Adams.
Just four minutes into the game, Nurse counterattacked the Grizzlies’ size with a smaller lineup with more shooting, opting for Malachi Flynn and Gary Trent Jr. The latter kept the Raptors in the game, draining nine points in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies proved to be too much.
To balance their big men, the Grizzlies got themselves in an early groove behind Morant’s playmaking, opening the first quarter going 5-for-8 from three.
One of the culprits behind the Grizzlies’ hot shooting was a familiar face in Dillon Brooks. The Mississauga native made his mark this time last year when the Grizzlies visited Toronto, proclaiming “this is my house!” in a decisive win.
Tonight was no different for Brooks, opening the game with a three, and finishing tied for a game-high 25 points.
Brooks’ offence was matched by his defence, as he continued to take on the other team's best player — this time in Siakam, who also finished the game with a quarter-piece, but on 42 percent shooting, before fouling out in the fourth quarter.
The guard remained his vocal self, barking at the Raptors as they made their way back on offence. It boiled over in the fourth quarter after a foul on Siakam, who retaliated by pushing Brooks, leading to a technical for the Raptor, and, eventually, Nurse for his reaction.
“I’m trying to be stuck on them like a sticker,” said Brooks. “And then I talk a little smack too, and some guys don’t like it.”
The second quarter saw Siakam catch his groove to start, with seven quick points; the final three coming in transition, with a strong and-1 at the rim, after initially intercepting another alley-oop attempt by the Grizzlies.
However, to some extent, Memphis was able to contain the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, with Siakam coming into the matchup averaging 35.8 points while shooting 51 percent in his last five games.
The Grizzlies ultimately took their first 20-point lead at around the eight-minute mark of the third quarter, a frame in which the Raptors also gave up an alley-oop between Ziaire Williams and Morant following a made Raptors free throw.
“Several touchdown passes … it was about as bad as it could get,” said Nurse. “Plays like that can happen. But they can happen maybe once every seven years. Like seriously … we got to get focused, connected and get serious.”
The Raptors had a couple runs, where they were able to bring the lead down to 14 in the third, and then nine in the fourth behind scrappy plays leading to turnovers. A lineup of Scottie Barnes, Jeff Dowtin Jr., Malachi Flynn, Chris Boucher and Trent initially led that charge.
Nurse applauded Barnes’ effort in the second half, where he was able to use power moves to get his way around the bucket. Just like last season, it’s taking Barnes time to get into that rhythm, often opting for harder shots to start the game, Nurse said.
Upon continued discussion around his progression in his sophomore year, Barnes put up a double-double with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four assists on Thursday. Asked at the end of the game, Morant kept it simple in regards to Barnes’ future, which remains a bright spot looking forward for this Raptors team.
“Don't worry y’all, he’ll be OK. Everyone’s time is different, he’ll be special.”
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