As the Toronto Raptors push toward the postseason, they need to learn from their losses and not make the same mistakes twice. On Friday night in a convincing 99-86 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto seemed to be playing to avenge a loss to the Brooklyn Nets earlier in the week.
While the Raptors allowed Brooklyn to overwhelm them with their experience and be the aggressors from the jump, against the Grizzlies, save for a slow start, they were ready.
“I don’t mean this in a bad way with Memphis because I love the style of defence they play, but the only way you can challenge a bully is if you hit them first,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “I don’t think we did that the first quarter. We did the second quarter and they responded. You’ve got to have a physical mentality against a team like that and I thought our guys did that after the first quarter.”
With DeMar DeRozan having a tough night thanks to pressure from Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince — along with Jonas Valanciunas’ defender often coming over to help on Toronto’s All-Star — it was Valanciunas who answered the call for the Raptors. The second-year player poured in a season-high 23 points and nine rebounds while shooing 11-for-15 from the floor.
After an up-and-down season of continuing to adjust to the NBA game, it was a huge night for Valanciunas.
“Memphis has got one of the best four-five combinations in the league so for JV to come in and play like he did, he was the difference-marker,” John Salmons said. “It made him a better player today.”
Kyle Lowry had similar praise for his big man.
“The way he played tonight, he battled and played great defence on Zach [Randolph], he earned some respect,” Lowry said. “That’s just the learning curve. He’s going to keep getting better.”
Valanciunas played down his role in the game, choosing instead to focus on what they had accomplished as a team.
“They [The Grizzlies] play really tough basketball, especially in the paint,” Valanciunas said. “We battled really hard and we showed that we can get a win.”
It was a solid victory against a Western Conference team that is fighting for their playoff lives and playing their best basketball of the season.
Most impressive was the way Toronto took control in the fourth quarter. In previous years, the Raptors would fold under pressure, seeming to wilt as the game went on and stakes got higher. This year’s team is figuring out how to close out games and is building trust with each win.
Outscoring Memphis 29-18 in the fourth quarter, Greivis Vasquez was the reserve to step in for Toronto on Friday night. Playing the entire final frame, Vasquez joined the starters, including pairing in the backcourt with Lowry, and his energy helped the Raptors close out the game on a 21-8 run.
“Obviously, Coach Casey is an outstanding coach,” Vasquez said. “Today he gave me a chance to come off the bench and play with rhythm and I got the job done.”
Casey was most proud of his team for their patience to grind out a win.
“The resilience, the toughness, the way we stuck with it, kept coming, kept coming,” Casey said. “That style of basketball is how we’re growing and evolving as a team.”