Raptors lose 109-99 to Memphis to leave them on the brink of elimination

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TAMPA, Fla. – Pascal Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. scored 18 points apiece in a 109-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday that left the Toronto Raptors on the brink of elimination.

Malachi Flynn added 15 points in his 10th start for the Raptors (27-41), who used a franchise-record 34th different starting lineup on the season. Yuta Watanabe chipped in with 11 points, while Khem Birch had 10.

Former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas had 18 points and 21 rebounds for Memphis, while Jaren Jackson Jr., had 20 points to top the Grizzlies (31-30).

In a tough season that saw the displaced Raptors nose-dive down the standings with one win in March amid a COVID-19 outbreak, Toronto came into Saturday’s game still alive for a spot in the play-in tournament by a sliver — a place coach Nick Nurse called the “last-chance saloon.”

The Raptors began the night 12th in the Eastern Conference and four games behind Washington for the 10th and final play-in spot.

However, the Raptors, who have four games to go, have said their goal down the stretch is to evaluate and develop, and so starters Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet (dressed in the coaching attire of a black Raptors golf shirt) and OG Anunoby sat out the game either for rest or injury maintenance.

Siakam didn’t play the fourth quarter with a strained left shoulder, while Toronto also lost Rodney Hood in the fourth quarter. X-rays revealed a fractured finger on his left hand.

Trailing by 12 points late in the third quarter, the Raptors opened the fourth quarter with a 10-0 run capped by Trent Jr.’s three-pointer that pulled them to within a point.

When Valanciunas, who played nearly seven seasons for Toronto, muscled his way to the hoop, his basket capped a 13-3 Grizzlies run that had Memphis back up by 10 with five minutes to play.

The Raptors sliced the difference to five on a basket by Flynn with 1:25 to play, but that was as close as they would come.

The Raptors had won the previous seven meetings between the two teams. Valanciunas played a big part in ending that streak. Clearly inspired playing against the Raptors after they shipped him to Memphis in the Marc Gasol deal at the 2019 trade deadline, Valanciunas has recorded double-doubles in consecutive games against his former team.

Asked if he had a favourite memory of Valanciunas, Nurse talked about working with the big man in Lithuania in the off-seasons.

“You probably know Jonas loves to hunt and fish. And he took me fishing one time and I have never seen a guy so happy when he was reeling in a fish. Like so intense, so excited. And I told him, ‘Next year when we’re out on the floor I’m gonna tell you to rebound like it’s a fish,’” Nurse said with a loud laugh. “I want you to be as excited about going to the glass as you are about reeling in that fish.’”

The Grizzlies raced out to a 10-point first quarter lead, but the Raptors closed the frame with a 15-5 run to send the game into the second tied at 26-26.

Trent Jr.’s bank shot early in the second capped a 9-2 Raptors run that had them up by five, but they couldn’t maintain the momentum. Dillon Brooks fed Morant for an alley-oop dunk with just under a minute to play to put Memphis up by four, and the Grizzlies took a 47-46 lead into the halftime break.

The Grizzlies stretched the difference to 12 points on a Jackson three-pointer late in the quarter. Morant stole the ball off Siakam for a dunk with 0.9 seconds to play and Memphis led 81-72 with one quarter to play.

Nurse, also the coach of the Canadian national men’s team, expects Brooks to play in Canada’s last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament June 29 to July 4 in Victoria.

“He’s in. He’s been in every time I’ve talked to him,” Nurse said of the native of Mississauga, Ont. “He’s hungry to play and represent his country so that’s great.

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“And as far as his game I think him among a lot of other guys have really improved this year, and I can only say that his compete level is way up there, his toughness is up there, his willingness to get down and play defence is way up there and he’s obviously not bashful when it comes to the offensive end.”

The Raptors host Kawhi Leonard and the L.A. Clippers on Tuesday, then could play spoiler against the visiting Chicago Bulls on Thursday. They travel to Dallas on Friday then host Indiana in the regular-season finale on Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2021.