After feel-good end to road trip, where will the Raptors’ improving vibes take them?

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes (4) reacts after scoring late in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. The Raptors won 106-103. (Brandon Dill/AP)

The Toronto Raptors went on the road for seven games and 12 days and will come back home in much the same situation as when they left, though with one important difference.

Sure, they might still be in 12th place and be five games under .500 instead of the six games they were under the breakeven mark when they left.

But as they return to Toronto with a 4-3 record on the franchise’s longest continuous trip in 26 years, they have a modest two-game win streak to build on and most importantly a growing sense of belief after having it tested for most of the season to this point.

The Raptors rallied from 15 points down in the third quarter, down nine with 10 minutes to play and down three in the final minutes to wrest a hard-fought 106-103 win from the Memphis Grizzlies and can feel pretty good about themselves as they begin a five-game homestand on Wednesday.

It could be the calm before the storm – the Raptors remain active and open on the trade market, with the deadline coming this Thursday – but it’s worth enjoying for however long it lasts.

“We’re a good team. We got a long way to go, we got a lot of work to do but we’ve been trending upwards as of late,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet who had 15 points, seven assists and a crucial defensive play on Memphis guard Desmond Bane that helped decide the game. “We can’t really worry about the past, we just got to focus on the future, whatever the future holds, you know, just take it one day at a time.

“But I think for whatever it was seven games and 12 days, some really tough opponents, short rest, short turnarounds, [we’re happy to] come out and finish it off with a win here – and we felt like we left a couple on the table. So we’ve been playing good basketball as of late, we’ve got to continue to build on that.”

Some caveats, of course: the Grizzlies, who occupy second place in the West, were missing three starters: leading scorer and superstar guard Ja Morant (wrist), starting wing Dillon Brooks (suspension) and rugged big man Steven Adams (knee). And the first game of their two-game winning streak came against the woeful Houston Rockets.

But the Raptors are playing better as of late. 

The Raptors have struggled defensively most of the season, but there have been some very good flashes and the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies was a case in point: they held Memphis to just 17 points and 31 per cent shooting, while forcing them into seven of their 20 turnovers. 

Down the stretch it was Scottie Barnes who took charge, scoring 13 of his 16 points and shooting six of seven from the floor, including a pair of crucial scores in the final 59 seconds: a tough little jumper from the baseline to pull the Raptors within one and an even tougher jump hook in the paint over Memphis centre Jaren Jackson Jr., the NBA’s leading shot blocker who had four in 32 minutes last night. That one gave the Raptors the lead with 20 seconds left. 

“Things get tight in the fourth quarter and the ball was coming to me, so I was just trying to get downhill and win the game,” said Barnes, who added seven rebounds, two steals, and two blocked shots. “I feel like I’m more locked in probably just things like that. [I’m] just being a present at the end of the game.” 

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Then Raptors head coach Nick Nurse came up big, challenging a shooting foul on Desmond Banes – initially called on VanVleet, who came over to block Banes’ lay-up attempt. The foul call was successfully over-turned, giving the Raptors the ball back. 

“There was a couple of other times I could have used it and I’m glad I didn’t,” said Nurse. 

Siakam then hit a couple of free throws to put the Raptors up three before Jackson Jr. missed a three at the buzzer. 

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It was a feel-good win: Seven different Raptors finished in double figures scoring, led by Siakam with 19, while Chris Boucher and Thad Young combined for 31 points off the bench. 

The vibe, as they say, seems to be improving after a lot of frustrating losses were making it difficult to stay positive for the Raptors, who are 25-30 on the season, a half-game out of the final play-in spot (10th place) and 4.5 games out of the final guaranteed playoff spot (sixth place).

“It’s a great way to end the trip,” said VanVleet. “We competed and I thought we played some really good basketball for the majority of a long trip like this for a young team like ourselves, we got to close it out with that fourth quarter on a night where nothing really going our way. We hung in there and made a couple more plays at the end and came out with a victory.

“Rightfully so we’re going to criticize ourselves and be harder on ourselves, but we should be proud of our effort and being able to come out here with a win tonight.”

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Now, no one should get too carried away. The Raptors’ defensive rating over the past seven games is 20th in the NBA at 116.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, compared to 19th and 113.6 prior to the trip. They’re still capable of giving up a lot of easy looks and are very dependent on forcing turnovers to generate offence but are otherwise too easy to score against – over the past seven games the Raptors are 28th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage and 29th on the season. 

But they bookended the trip with their best defensive effort of the season with a win against the Sacramento Kings and their fourth quarter against Memphis, with some nice moments in wins against Portland and Houston in between, giving Toronto something to feel good about. 

“I feel like we’re coming together better as a group, defensively,” said Barnes. “I feel we started off amazing on the defensive end versus the Kings .. getting stops, getting deflections and I feel like we started good, we finished the road trip pretty good. So I feel like that the primary thing just focusing on that defensive end and being able to find ways to be active and just getting back to what we’re used to doing.”

We’ll see how long it lasts, and where it can take them. 

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