Raptors, Grizzlies and CEBL put on memorable day for Canadian basketball

Fred VanVleet, left, of the Toronto Raptors and Brandon Clarke, right, of the Memphis Grizzlies' fight for a loose ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game. (Kevin C. Cox/AP)

TORONTO – Sunday was quite the day for Canadian basketball.

First, the Edmonton Stingers were crowned 2020 CEBL Summer Series champions after beating the Fraser Valley Bandits in 90-73 Elam-ending victory that capped off a fantastic couple weeks of or so of Canadian basketball in St. Catharines as the league managed to successfully put on an entertaining and safe tournament during these uncertain COVID-19 times.

Then, immediately after Summer Series MVP Xavier Moon drilled a free-throw to seal the Stingers’ championship, about 2,000 kilometres south of the Meridian Centre at the VISA Athletic Center at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World resort the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies were tipping off in a particularly special contest for any hardcore Canadian hoops head out there.

Both the Raptors and Grizzlies were in their old inaugural season throwbacks meaning Toronto was rocking the old red and purple dinosaur and the Grizzlies hearkened back to when they wore teal and represented the great city of Vancouver

All that was missing from that scene was the beautiful visage of the Naismith Cup gleaming in the background.

But even though the Naismith Cup couldn’t be tracked down to really drive this bit of nostalgia home, the result of Sunday’s contest between the Raptors and Grizzlies was much like those old battles for Canadian pride.

The Raptors beat the Grizzlies 108-99 Sunday bettering their record against the Grizzlies wearing their Vancouver uniforms to 11-5, including the Naismith Cup exhibitions (of which Toronto has won four times).

More pertinent to now, the victory locked up the Atlantic Division for the Raptors for the seventh time in franchise history, the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and saw them reach 50 wins for the fifth straight season.

“It is a consistency,” said Nurse after the game Sunday. “Where do you want to start? Let’s start with Kyle [Lowry], he’s been here for the whole run of that, right? We plugged in some new guys here and there that have probably exceeded most people’s expectations from Pascal [Siakam] to Fred [VanVleet] to Norm [Powell] to Serge [Ibaka] was a nice addition, obviously. Marc [Gasol] was a nice addition as well. That’s where I would start. I think Kyle’s toughness and leadership has really set the tone for this organization for this kind of run.”

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The sustained success the Raptors have enjoyed has been a constant source of pride and joy for Canadian basketball fans over the last seven seasons or so and so too have been the many Canadian hoopers in the NBA who have managed to make a splash.

From Steve Nash to Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson to Shai Gilegeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray there’s been legitimate talent for Canadian hoops fans to cheer on for a while now and on Sunday the Raptors got to see two more talented Canucks who figure to be a big part of Canada Basketball’s future in Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke.

“They really both had great years,” Nurse said before Sunday’s contest of Brooks and Clarke. “I think really impressed, and really aggressive, both of ’em. Dillon just in general, he’ll guard ya, he’ll push the ball, he’ll work his way into shots, again, plays really hard, that’s awesome. And I think that Brandon’s just expanded, he brings the ball up the floor, he shoots the three a bit, he’s a great lob threat, and also plays really hard. I’m really, really impressed by both their seasons.”

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Coming into Sunday’s game, Brooks was averaging 15.9 points per game as a starter for the Grizzlies and a key defender for them while Clarke was averaging 12 points and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting an incredible 62.6 per cent from the field, and was probably a notable rookie of the year finalist snub.

During the game Sunday, Clarke had yet another strong showing scoring 16 points and grabbing nine rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting coming off the bench.

Meanwhile, it took a little while for Brooks to get his motor running, but when he did he very nearly got the Grizzlies back into position to steal Sunday’s game from the Raptors late.

With 7:09 left to play in the fourth quarter, Brooks drilled a triple to pull Memphis within 12 to kick off a 14-4 Grizzlies run that was given an exclamation point with a big Clarke dunk with 2:54 to play after he blew by Gasol on the perimeter to cut the Raptors’ lead to just four points.

Nearly immediately after this Siakam would hit a three to stop the Raptors’ bleeding and jumpstart a game-winning run of Toronto’s, but during this four-minute, 15-second spurt the two Canadians impressed with Brooks scoring seven points and Clarke punching home four points on a couple of jams.

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Brooks, in particular, was impressive as that seven-point burst during Memphis’ run was part of a 12-point explosion of his in the fourth quarter that saw him go 5-for-7 from the field and 2-for-3 from three-point range. Prior to this, Brooks was really struggling, only managing six points on dismal 3-for-12 shooting in the first half of Sunday’s contest, but he stayed confident in himself and managed to turn a bad-looking game into one where he very nearly could’ve won it for his team.

“That’s huge for him,” said Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins. “We recognized in the first half we were forcing the issues a little bit too much and I felt like, as we addressed that with the team in the timeouts and in half-time about what’s at stake, what the defence is giving us I thought he did a much better job as a playmaker and that says a lot.”

Brooks finished Sunday’s game with 25 points on 11-of-26 shooting.

So, it’s worth re-iterating, with a CEBL champion crowned, the fact we got to see Toronto and Vancouver spiritually battle for the Naismith Cup again, Canada’s lone NBA team hitting yet another milestone and some big-time performances from Canadians in the game, too, Sunday was quite the day for Canadian basketball.

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