One — Fake: The Raptors are trying to close the season out with the best draft odds possible, while doing as much development as they can as a side effect. That’s why the roster continues to look thin with several starters missing time, and really, it’s the best strategy for the last two weeks of the year. The play-in tournament is almost mathematically impossible to reach, and even if they got there, it’s unrealistic for the Raptors to flip a switch and to suddenly make a meaningful run. They’re looking to leave Tampa with as many lottery balls as possible.
Two — Circumstance: Even though they’re tanking, there is still a distinct sense of pride in how the Raptors play. Although they were sloppy at times, the Raptors were relentless on defense, refusing to show any let-up as they swarmed the Grizzlies in the paint. Nick Nurse even pulled out his trusty box-and-one coverage for extended minutes, even though rookie guard Jalen Harris would hardly be his first choice defender against an electric slasher like Ja Morant. The Raptors pressured the Grizzlies into 17 turnovers which kept the game uncomfortably close until late in the fourth quarter. It’s one thing to tank, but there is a responsibility to the viewers and to the organizational standard to still play hard. Even though they keep losing, the Raptors’ effort has been strong each time.
Three — Interrupted: Pascal Siakam was the lone playmaker for the Raptors, and while it was extremely difficult for him to get into the paint with the Grizzlies loading up on him, Siakam did enough to keep the Raptors’ offense alive with his 18 points and four assists. However, Siakam joined his fellow starters on the sidelines after Brandon Clarke charged through his shoulder, leaving him with an injury that the Raptors will look to evaluate in the coming days. Siakam had been carrying a heavy load this season, and although veterans like Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and even OG Anunoby have sat out, Siakam is often the last man standing who is still on the floor. His role in these games is to provide structure so that everyone else can settle in their role. If Siakam must sit, it won’t be surprising to see the Raptors bring back one of their lead guards.
Four — Development: The Raptors are so committed to getting their young guys prepared that VanVleet joined the coaching staff for a night. VanVleet was on the floor before the game running his teammates through drills (which goes directly against his stated reason for sitting which was to “rest”) and later reappeared on the bench in a full coaches uniform, right down to the black slacks and dress shoes. Nurse revealed after the game that VanVleet even joined the coaches during the halftime meeting, and was mostly focused on attending to rookie guard Malachi Flynn. But one question remains: How did VanVleet get his hands on a set of uniforms? Nurse says it wasn’t the coaches who prepared one for him, and yet VanVleet was perfectly dressed for the role. As reporters, it is our duty to follow up to find the truth in this story.
Five — Difference: The difference in Flynn’s performance was night and day. In the first half, Flynn picked up three fouls and was largely invisible on offense. But after halftime, Flynn was much more aggressive getting into the paint, keeping his dribble alive, and being more patient in letting his teammates get open, and it resulted in him making more of his own shots. It’s overly simplistic to say Flynn just needs to touch the paint to be effective, but it’s also the prevailing pattern in his performances. Flynn needs to be brave in attacking the basket, and whether it’s for his own look, or to set up his teammates, it’s always a good idea for him to make a hard move downhill, slow down if nothing is there, and then dribble it out or to find his big man on the roll. Flynn was particularly good in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points, hitting two threes, and setting up two assists.
Six — Inefficient: Similarly, the key to a good game from Gary Trent Jr. is to play off the attention given to others. Trent Jr. called his own number a few too many times, perhaps out of a sense of duty with the starting backcourt out, but the degree of difficulty on his looks is always going to drag down his efficiency. Trent Jr. is great when he is draining catch-and-shoot threes, and the skillset is there for him to step inside the line while attacking a closeout for a long two, but where he gets into trouble is when he’s running pick-and-rolls. Trent Jr. is mostly looking for his shot, only occasionally finding teammates, and is often taking pull-up jumpers at odd angles. He didn’t play as poorly as his 5-for-20 shooting line suggested, but it’s clear that he isn’t comfortable with being a playmaker just yet.
Seven — Banger: Even though there are very few low-post players left since the NBA has shifted towards small ball, it’s still a massive problem when Jonas Valanciunas comes to town. Valanciunas finished with 18 points and 21 rebounds in a dominant showing, feasting on putbacks, sealing his defenders under the basket, and just generally bullying the Raptors frontcourt. Khem Birch seemed to struggle in that role, which isn’t surprising since Birch mostly uses his athleticism and quickness to compensate for less strength than the average center. Nurse changed his rotations in the second half, pulling Birch for Freddie Gillespie to take on the Valanciunas assignment.
Eight — Energetic: Gillespie was great in his role, delivering six points and eight rebounds off the bench. Gillespie’s two best plays came against the Grizzlies’ two young stars. First, he took a charge against Jaren Jackson Jr., beating the former No. 3 pick to the spot on a drive in the first half. Second, Gillespie showed tremendous courage in meeting Morant at the rim on a dunk attempt, the same Morant who looked down into the basket on a windmill alley-oop earlier this week. Just as Birch picked up for Gillespie when he was struggling, Gillespie was able to return the favor in a more favorable matchup.
Nine — Smooth: There’s something promising in Jalen Harris, who scored 16 points with six rebounds and four assists off the bench. Harris is very smooth and moves at his own pace, almost like he’s gliding through possessions at times, and he’s clearly skilled. Harris opened his account with a fadeaway jumper on the baseline, then knocked down a few threes, and was confident throughout. Harris showed the reverse layup in traffic twice, including on a 3-on-1 fast break where Harris called his own number. Harris isn’t guaranteed to be on the team next season, but he’s getting a chance to make his case.
Ten — Unique: Nurse also put Harris on the Morant assignment in a box-and-one. What that entailed was Harris facing Morant the entire play, denying him of the ball while the other four defenders covered the rest. Harris said he’s willing to do the dirty work of whatever coach asks him to do, but this was a strange assignment. When asked when was the last time he ran a box-and-one in his career, Harris couldn’t even remember a single instance of it in college or high school.
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