After looking lost, Raptors find their old defensive identity just in time

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant handles the ball between Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa (5) and guard Fred VanVleet (23) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Though it looked like the same old record of late would play once again, the Toronto Raptors instead seemed to rediscover themselves against the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night.

The last time the Raptors played, on Sunday against the world-beating Golden State Warriors, they couldn’t do anything to stop the three-point line. Toronto conceded the corners again and again, allowing the Dubs to get uncorked to the tune of an astounding 22-of-45 mark from deep.

Two days later, against a not-nearly-as-great Grizzlies team, it looked as if the Raptors were going to get drilled in the opposite manner, as they gave up 42 points in the paint and 60.5 per cent shooting to the Grizzlies at half time — but then they finally found their old defensive identity.

The Raptors stormed back in the second half and came away with a 126-113 victory, improving their record on this current road trip to 2-3 with one more game left to play Friday night in Indianapolis.

Black Friday Sale
From November 22-29th, Sportsnet NOW is having a 20% off sale on Standard and Premium annual plans.

The Raptors entered Wednesday’s affair as one of the better teams in the league at defending the paint, conceding just 42.3 points per game on the inside. However, like much else of the team’s defence of late, that completely cratered in the first half against the Grizzlies, who enjoyed a 71-59 halftime lead.

Granted, the Raptors did have a pretty good excuse for not being able to defend the paint as well as they normally have. The Grizzlies entered the game averaging 53.1 points in the paint per game – good for second-best in the league – and Toronto was, once again, shorthanded as OG Anunoby missed his fourth straight game with that left hip pointer injury and the problematic swelling in Khem Birch’s right knee returned, forcing him to miss Wednesday’s game.

Still, even with how good the Grizzlies are in the paint and with the Raptors shorthanded, Wednesday’s dismal defensive performance in that first half was indicative of a larger trend that’s plagued the Raptors of late.

To begin the season, Toronto’s high-risk, high-reward defence looked to be working out beautifully. The team was creating turnovers, getting out in transition and were rock-solid defensively, owning a 102.4 defensive rating over their first nine games where they went 6-3. Since then, however, while the Raptors have still managed to create turnovers and get out and run, the team went 2-7 and saw their defensive rating take a nosedive, entering Wednesday’s game at just 116.6.

The defensive identity that was supposed to be the Raptors’ calling card has seemingly been either all but abandoned or simply couldn’t be executed and, in the first half of Wednesday’s game, it was again trending that way.

Stream 250+ marquee NBA matchups from around the league, including over 40 Raptors games. Plus, get news, highlights, analysis, select NBA Playoff matchups and the NBA Draft.

From easy backdoor cuts to just outright incredible attacks of the rim from Grizzlies star Ja Morant (who finished the game with 23 points, nine assists and a nasty dunk on Toronto’s Chris Boucher) the Raptors offered very little in the way of resistance to Memphis’ concerted attack of the paint.

Thankfully for Toronto, however, the Grizzlies are probably the worst defensive team in the league and, in the third quarter, Memphis began to show its real stripes. Toronto was getting essentially anything it wanted at-will, opening the period on a 17-5 run and finishing the frame trailing just 92-91.

In the quarter, Precious Achiuwa scored all 17 of his points and played more freely than in his previous games so far with the Raptors.

“He just got on a tear like we haven’t really seen,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse.

Come the fourth quarter, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet picked up where Achiuwa left off. Trent scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the period, including a triple with 5:44 left in the frame that sparked a 13-2 run. During that stretch, VanVleet scored a driving layup, dropped a dime to Pascal Siakam – who was alright himself with 17 points and seven assists – and drilled a dagger three to put the game out of reach.

“He really got in a rhythm there. He kinda, no big secret, we were running the same play over and over and he found about every way to get him,” said Nurse of VanVleet’s run. “He was really orchestrating there.”

But as strong as Achiuwa and Trent were in those third and fourth quarters, respectively, it wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for some rock-solid defence played by the Raptors, who looked like their old selves from earlier in the season, holding the Grizzlies to just 41 per cent shooting from the floor, highlighted by an incredible block by Yuta Watanabe (who made his season debut after missing all of the regular season beforehand with a left calf strain) on Canadian Dillon Brooks in the fourth quarter.

“We just played hard, played like we cared. We’re a young team. Sometimes it’s hard to stress the urgency and what it takes to win in this league every night,” said VanVleet, who had 23 points, six rebounds and seven assists Wednesday evening. “You can’t go out there and go through the motions or you’re gonna have a team put 71 on you in the first half and then you’ll be fighting uphill. Luckily, we were able to turn it around, but it’s not really the way we want to live going forward.”

Added Nurse: “I think it’s just overall energy that translates from one end to the other. There was plenty of screws to be turned after that first-half defence. … I always talk about this, when your defensive execution [is good] and you start doing the schemes, and you start playing help defence, it always turns into playing better execution and helps offence, if that makes any sense.”

There’s a good chance that the Raptors wouldn’t have given themselves a chance to tighten things up in that second half had it not been for some second-quarter heroics from rookie phenom Scottie Barnes, who shook off a couple ineffective games with a 17-point, nine-rebound outburst that saw him go off for 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the second quarter alone.

Like the return of the Raptors’ defence, seeing Barnes return to form was a welcome sight.

“I think he had a couple nights where he just didn’t quite have it. That’s OK. We’ve all been there. As a rookie, we’re certainly asking him to do a lot. We need him to produce in order for us to be good,” said VanVleet of Barnes. “He turned it around tonight, so that was good to see. The effort and the intensity and the attention to detail, those things have got to be non-negotiable. Whatever else comes after that, we’ve got to take it in stride. I’m just trying to support him the best I can and I thought he was great tonight from the jump.”

For the past nine games the Raptors have looked lost, and decidedly unlike themselves – or the versions of themselves that most expect them to be. Their problems of late nearly reared their ugly heads again, but it looks like they found themselves just in the nick of time and what was shaping up to be a disastrous road trip now could end rather well for them.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.