Without Lowry, Raptors' young leaders step up to earn challenge-filled win

Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam each scored 32 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 128-113.

TORONTO -- Not all wins are created equal.

There are always some victories a team picks up over the course of an NBA season that just feel bigger, for any number of reasons.

For the Toronto Raptors, on a sleepy Monday night in early February out on the road in Memphis to take on the Grizzlies, they picked up such a W.

Just about every obstacle was thrown Toronto’s way during Monday's affair. Already playing without OG Anunoby, who was battling a lingering calf strain for the seventh straight game, the Raptors also only had Kyle Lowry for about eight minutes after he was forced to leave with back spasms.

But the challenges, some of them self-inflicted, didn't stop there. The Raptors came back despite giving up 70 points in the first half, earned their first victory after trailing through three quarters, weathered a monster performance from an old friend and overcame three technical fouls handed out to the team -- including head coach Nick Nurse’s second-ever ejection as an NBA bench boss.

The Raptors managed to navigate through it all to emerge as well-earned victors.

“It was fun post-game in the locker room, the guys were enjoying it and they should,” said Nurse after the game. “Jeez, we talked about never getting too high or getting too low but you gotta enjoy the wins. You’ve got to. It’s too hard to get them not to do it and I thought we did it under tough circumstances.

“We didn’t play well and it was a bit frustrating out there and all of a sudden we started playing great. It’s good to be able to turn a game like that. It doesn’t seem like it’s going your way and you catch a little lightning and roll with it.”

The turnaround Nurse was eluding to coincided with his ejection from the game with 3:02 left to play in the third quarter. It was a confusing situation, as Nurse originally thought he’d picked up just his first technical foul there in the third, but, as it turned out, official Josh Tiven had changed a technical foul originally called on Pascal Siakam just before the end of the first half to Nurse’s first technical, resulting in his surprise ejection in the third.

Coincidence or not, however, Nurse’s ejection ended up sparking a game-changing 43-19 run that saw the Raptors have a complete reversal of their fortunes in Monday’s contest. Toronto went from allowing Memphis to shoot 48.3 per cent from the field and 46.2 per cent from three-point range, earning 24 free-throw attempts before Nurse’s ejection to an anemic 26.8 per cent shooting from the floor, 1-of-13 from deep and four free-throw attempts.

“There's two ways that you can look at it,” said VanVleet of Nurse’s ejection. “If you like Nick then it's a great ejection and we were great after that, and if you don't like him all we needed to do was get rid of him and we're better off without him. So, I like him and I thought he was defending us.”

No matter what side of that argument you might fall on, there’s no denying that the Raptors were able to play better because they managed to tighten up their defence after Nurse was forced to watch the game from the visitors’ locker room, and it was largely thanks to Toronto’s young leadership stepping up in Lowry’s absence.

“We all challenge each other to play harder and be more into it and that didn’t just include the five guys that were on the floor,” said VanVleet. “That was also the guys on the bench. We definitely went out there and earned it after giving up 70 in the first half. A 27-point third and a 16-point fourth. You can live with that. You can survive that way. So hopefully we’ll build on that moving forward.”

Added Norman Powell: “It was focus. That was the main talk at halftime. Top to bottom, guys got on each other, holding each other accountable, making sure we weren’t blame shifting or anything like that. You made a mistake? You own it and do better the next time. And I think top to bottom we did that in the second half. We got stops and we played together.”

And Pascal Siakam: “I just think at half coach came in [asking for] a lot more energy just from the bench, all the coaches [said the same]. I just felt like it’s always on the players to bring energy, but it’s on all of us, the players, the coaching staff, the players on the bench, we all have to bring it.”

Bring it the Raptors certainly did -- especially the aforementioned trio, who combined for 93 points and came a Powell-point shy of becoming the first Raptors trio to score 30 or more points each all in the same game.

And in particular, Siakam was great, scoring 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including a welcome 5-for-8 mark from three-point range, snapping a 9-for-47 funk from deep he’s been in for the last 15 games.

“Yeah, it’s been a while,” said Siakam. “I feel good, man. Finally making some shots. It’s about time.”

Three-point shooting aside, Siakam has been very strong of late, averaging 25.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 50.9 per cent from the field.

But when it came down to it, Toronto won Monday’s contest because of defence, especially against former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas.

It was exactly two years and one day ago that Valanciunas was traded by the Raptors as part of the deal that brought Marc Gasol to Toronto, and in just the second time playing the team that originally took him fifth overall back in 2011, he played very well, coming up with a monster double-double of 27 points and 20 rebounds.

However, Valanciunas’ overall line doesn’t tell the full story. After a first half that saw him put up 18 points and 14 rebounds, Valanciunas was limited much more in the second half, mostly with the much slighter Chris Boucher on the floor against him.

“It was hard because we weren’t making any reads right in the first half,” said Nurse. “[Ja] Morant would come down the lane and the big would think it was time to go help and shot block and probably was right. That leaves the big roaming down the middle, somebody else has to come in and block out and we weren’t getting there on that. But obviously in the second half we were taking away that part of it at least.

“Our activity just got a lot better in general. Chris was really getting a piece of a lot of shots or altering a lot of shots there late in the game.”

The Raptors had every excuse to pack it in when the whistle wasn’t going their way and their defence was failing them. Instead, they stuck with it, and fought back for one of their most satisfying wins of the season to, once again, pull within just two wins of the .500 mark.

It’s unclear if this victory will mean bigger and better things down the line, but, for the time being, it certainly feels like it.

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