The Toronto Raptors‘ goals this season have been largely undefined, or at least unspoken. Are they all-in for a playoff spot? Trying to figure out if their core is good enough to build around? Waiting to see where the trade winds blow?
It’s all a little muddy at the moment.
But we can expect some clarity by the end of December — let’s just agree on that. By then the Raptors will have completed their most friendly stretch of the schedule, with 12 of 15 games played at home.
So far? It’s not trending well.
Toronto hosted the Memphis Grizzlies on the second night of a season-long seven-game homestand on Tuesday, having already dropped the opener to Boston on Sunday.
If Toronto is going to make some kind of move in what is shaping up a very deep and very competitive Eastern Conference — before the ball went up Tuesday the Raptors were in 12th place and two spots out of the play-in tournament but all 11 teams ahead of them were at least one game over .500 — the time is now.
Unfortunately, that’s going to have to wait as Toronto fell 98-91 to the Grizzlies (11-10) in a game that was the kind of ugly the Raptors like but in which they couldn’t take advantage of their own defensive effort as they struggled mightily to score against the NBA’s worst defensive team.
Instead of the Raptors marking their turf, it was Grizzlies forward and Mississauga, Ont., native Dillon Brooks who took the opportunity to play at home to heart.
The fifth-year forward spent most of the game trying to get inside the jersey — and not-so-subtly under-the-skin — of Raptors catalyst Fred VanVleet. He didn’t make the Raptors guard disappear but he made Toronto’s leading scorer work for nearly everything he got as he held him to 15 points (compared to his season average of 20.1) and otherwise fought and scrapped to take up as much of VanVleet’s brain space as possible. It’s what Brooks does best.
VanVleet played 42 minutes but got up only 13 shots. He hit six, but was 1-of-5 from deep.
“[They] limited his touches for sure,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I thought they did a good job of that, Dillon decided to take that on, he’s physical and he works hard, obviously takes pride in that. [He] made things tough on Freddy for sure.”
It was Brooks’ pull-up three that gave Memphis an 11-point lead with 7:58 to play. Brooks then started screaming to the Raptors crowd “this is my house.”
Hey, with the way the Raptors have been playing at home, Brooks could make that argument. Brooks went on to make a pair of excellent defensive plays — picking Scottie Barnes’ pocket on an otherwise uncontested fast break and prior to that a blocked shot on VanVleet. He even flopped his way to fouling out Raptors centre Precious Achiuwa.
Brooks took it down a notch after the game.
“Fred’s an amazing player. He [has] a go-getter attitude. He sticks with it even if he’s not touching the ball, he can still find a way to score,” said Brooks later. “… He knows the game so well, so he was a tough cover. I was trying to figure out a way to limit his touches, trying to get out of his rhythm, and give us a chance to win.
And to do it in Toronto?
“This game was circled, for sure,” said Brooks, who hasn’t played here since the 2017-18 season due to injuries and the pandemic. “It’s been a dream. It’s been circled for a while.”
The Raptors refused to surrender easily.
Pascal Siakam came alive for nine fourth-quarter points and a triple by Malachi Flynn — who played a heavier than usual dose of minutes to give the Raptors another ball-handler alongside the Brooks-occupied VanVleet — with 1:42 to play cut the Grizzlies’ lead to five.
But Desmond Bane answered immediately with his fifth three to push the lead back to eight. Memphis needed all of it as Barnes hit a pair of late threes to keep things interesting, but Brooks hit a pair of free throws with 16.5 seconds left to ice it.
Nurse was looking for his club to play harder and with a little more focus at key moments in order to get the homestand rolling, and there’s little question the Raptors’ effort was there. They held Memphis to 39 per cent shooting and just 10-of-34 from deep, but the Raptors had their own problems scoring while missing starters Gary Trent Jr. (calf), Khem Birch (knee) and OG Anunoby (hip).
The Raptors shot just 40 per cent from the floor and were 10-of-38 from deep. They were beaten off the offensive glass 18-11 and committed 18 turnovers.
The Raptors were led by Siakam’s 20 points while Barnes chipped in with 19 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
None of it was enough as Toronto (9-13) lost its third straight and dropped to 2-8 at Scotiabank Arena.
The season is only a quarter over but already there is some urgency for the Raptors, or there should be. Normally, a seven-game homestand and a stretch of 10-of-11 at home would be cause to rejoice. Good teams use those kinds of schedule gifts as springboards to bigger and better things. Given the Raptors arrived home on a 3-9 slide — including the first game of their homestand on Sunday, Toronto rightly should be looking at it as a lifeboat; a season preserver.
The only problem? The Raptors’ poor record at home. If it’s a trend, it’s a problem.
If it’s a weird, early-season anomaly? Time to fix it.
“Yeah, we gotta fix that,” said Siakam, who added six rebounds and five assists. “It’s not acceptable. We can’t play like that at home. We have this fan base and all that, but like we have to show up at home. I think we have to make it part of what we do. No excuses and that can’t happen. It’s unacceptable. We have to be better at home for sure.”
The first half wasn’t what anyone was looking for as the Grizzlies led 50-39 heading into the break, on merit. The Raptors have played over their heads at times this season by scratching out advantages on the offensive glass and forcing opponents into high-volume turnovers. It’s papered over their own shooting woes and lack of bench production.
But the Grizzlies turned the tables on Toronto and jumped out to a 27-18 first quarter lead after the Raptors turned it over five times in the period, leading to 10 Memphis points. Memphis only coughed it up to Toronto twice for two points.
In the second quarter, it was the bigger Grizzlies’ dominance on the offensive glass that was the issue as Memphis turned five offensive rebounds into five second-chance points (the Raptors had none) as they threatened to blow Toronto out early. At one point they led by 17 points before a quick 7-0 run sparked by Siakam and finished with a Svi Mykhailiuk triple reeled Memphis in at least a little bit.
The good news is the Raptors have a lot more chances at home to get this right. The bad news? Their next chance comes against the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.
1. Nurse texted former Raptor (and former Grizzly) Jonas Valanciunas after the big man went off for a career-high 39 points and knocked down seven-of-eight threes for the New Orleans Pelicans Monday night. “I told him all those threes we shot eight, nine years ago in Lithuania, finally you’re taking them, you know. Jiminy Christmas … I’ve always said that from Day 1 when we got him, he has really good shooting touch .. he was really feeling it last night. It was really cool.” Valanciunas is now 30-of-58 from deep this season and has shot 40.3 per cent from three over the past three seasons.
2. The Grizzlies haven’t been in Toronto for a long time. Their last game here was on Jan. 19, 2019 — long enough that Marc Gasol was still playing for Memphis. The Raptors didn’t trade for him until February 2019. For Brooks, it’s been even longer as he wasn’t in the lineup in 2019. His last game in his hometown was Feb. 4, 2018.
3. Raptors assistant coaches Nate Bjorkgren and Nathaniel Mitchell were both back on Toronto’s bench after spending the previous week coaching the men’s national team in the first window of qualifying for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup. After two wins against Bahamas in the Dominican Republic, Mitchell and Bjorkgren had a 3 a.m. wake-up call and a 6 a.m. flight from Santo Domingo to Newark, N.J., and from there were on their way to Toronto. They made it to Scotiabank Arena in time for pre-game warm-ups about two hours before tip-off.