Toronto Star

Rocking in Memphis despite a slow start


If there ever comes a need to summarize the first 19 games of this season for the Raptors, Wednesday’s outing in Memphis would be a perfect example.

So much good, so much bad, always playing hard if not always playing smart, the Raptors recovered from a wretched start to register an impressive 126-113 win over the Grizzlies.

For all the team’s youth and inexperien­ce, it was a couple of relative veterans, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., who keyed a dominant fourth as Toronto went to 2-3 on a six-game road trip, their longest of the season.

Trent had 26 points and VanVleet finished with 23. All five Raptors starters finished in double figures. But most important, Toronto turned up the defensive intensity in the second half for an impressive come-from-behind victory.

Missing OG Anunoby (hip) and Khem Birch (swollen knee), the Raptors were unable to protect the rim or the paint while the Grizzlies scored almost at will inside in the first half. None of Precious Achiuwa, Pascal Siakam or Chris Boucher provided any kind of physical presence near the rim and the Grizzlies punished Toronto.

The Raptors gave up a seasonhigh 71 first-half points — 42 of them in the paint — as Memphis shot 61.5 per cent from the field in the first two quarters. But as bad as they were in the first half, the Raptors were that good in the third quarter when they outscored Memphis 32-21 to get right back in the game.

Achiuwa scored 17 points in the third quarter alone, Yuta Watanabe had a solid season debut after missing 18 games with a calf strain, and Toronto looked entirely different in the final two quarters.

The Raptors hope Watanabe’s return will smooth out some inconsiste­ncy in the frontcourt off the bench. Some of that has to do with an ever-revolving roster — along with Birch, Achiuawa missed some recent games because of injury — but most of it has been due to upand-down play.

“I think it’s been a little bit inconsiste­nt off the bench at that position,” coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “Whoever’s been available has been somewhat different night in and night out. We know Chris (Boucher) has had some really good games and then consistenc­y has been missing a little bit from him.”

What the Raptors need from Watanabe is what he gave them last season, albeit in a reduced role on a team that missed the playoffs. He’s under no illusions about what he has to bring: energy.

“I think that’s what I’ve been bringing to the team since last season,” Watanabe said last week. “And you know we have a good team, and I believe we can be one of the top teams in the NBA. So if I can bring my energy off the bench, I think that’d be great for the team.”

Watanabe was effective with a couple of steals and four free throws in six first-half minutes, and had a major impact defensivel­y when he was on the court. He didn’t take many shots, but created second-chance opportunit­ies.

“That’s what we like about him,” said Nurse. “He’s got some size and he’ll work really hard ... He was a nice spark tonight, for sure.”

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