The Toronto Raptors’ loss to Memphis that left them on the brink of elimination had a little bit of everything.
Their 34th starting lineup of the season — a franchise record. Injuries to Pascal Siakam and Rodney Hood. Most of their key players out for the night. And Fred VanVleet moonlighting as a coach.
Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. scored 18 points apiece and the Raptors lost 109-99 to the Grizzlies on Saturday — a game that was reflective of a wacky season rocked by COVID-19.
And now it could be about to end. An Indiana victory over Cleveland on Monday would officially end the Raptors’ post-season hopes.
Coach Nick Nurse has already had an eye on next season, however, and so Saturday was partly about evaluation and development.
“From a schematic standpoint, we executed pretty well,” Nurse said, summing up his young players. “I just didn’t think we played that well offensively.”
Rookie Jalen Harris had 16 points off the bench, Malachi Flynn added 15, Yuta Watanabe chipped in with 11 points, while Khem Birch had 10 for the Raptors (27-41).
“With the year that we’ve had, the COVID year and whatnot, I think everything has been about making adjustments, and playing on the fly,” Harris said. “I think we’ve been able to try to do that especially with all the injuries and different situations we’ve had all year and I just think it’s something that we’re getting used to.”
Siakam didn’t play the fourth quarter after suffering a shoulder strain, while Hood fractured his hand in the fourth.
Former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas had 18 points and 21 rebounds for Memphis, while Jaren Jackson Jr., had 20 points to top the Grizzlies (31-30).
In a tough season that saw the displaced Raptors nose-dive down the standings with one win in March amid a COVID-19 outbreak, Toronto came into Saturday’s game still alive for a spot in the play-in tournament by a sliver — a place Nurse called the “last-chance saloon.”
The Raptors are four-and-a-half games behind Indiana for the 10th and final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with four games to go.
The Raptors sat Kyle Lowry, VanVleet and OG Anunoby on Saturday either for rest or injury maintenance, VanVleet dressed in coaching attire with a black Raptors golf shirt.
“He’s interested, that’s the big thing. He even came in with our halftime coaches meeting and sat in with that which I thought was pretty interesting for him,” Nurse said of VanVleet. “It’s good that he’s engaged … when he’s not available, he’s still very near the court helping guys and he was coaching very hard with Malachi tonight so that was good.”
Trailing by 12 points late in the third quarter, the Raptors opened the fourth with a 10-0 run capped by Trent Jr.’s three-pointer that pulled them to within a point.
When Valanciunas, who played nearly seven seasons for Toronto, muscled his way to the hoop, his basket capped a 13-3 Grizzlies run that had Memphis back up by 10 with five minutes to play.
The Raptors sliced the difference to five on a basket by Flynn with 1:25 to play, but that was as close as they would come.
The Raptors had won the previous seven meetings between the two teams. Valanciunas played a big part in ending that streak. Inspired against his old team, after the Raptors shipped him to Memphis in the Marc Gasol deal at the 2019 trade deadline, Valanciunas has recorded double-doubles in consecutive contests against his former team.
Asked if he had a favourite memory of Valanciunas, Nurse talked about working with the big man in Lithuania in the off-seasons.
“You probably know Jonas loves to hunt and fish. And he took me fishing one time and I have never seen a guy so happy when he was reeling in a fish. Like so intense, so excited. And I told him, ‘Next year when we’re out on the floor I’m gonna tell you to rebound like it’s a fish,’” Nurse said with a loud laugh. “I want you to be as excited about going to the glass as you are about reeling in that fish.’”
The Grizzlies raced out to a 10-point first quarter lead, but the Raptors closed the frame with a 15-5 run to send the game into the second tied at 26-26.
Trent Jr.’s bank shot early in the second capped a 9-2 Raptors run that had them up by five, but they couldn’t maintain the momentum. Dillon Brooks fed Ja Morant for an alley-oop dunk with just under a minute to play to put Memphis up by four, and the Grizzlies took a 47-46 lead into the halftime break.
The Grizzlies stretched the difference to 12 points on a Jackson three-pointer late in the quarter. Morant stole the ball off Siakam for a dunk with 0.9 seconds to play and Memphis led 81-72 with one quarter to play.
Nurse, also the coach of the Canadian national men’s team, expects Brooks to play in Canada’s last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament June 29 to July 4 in Victoria.
“He’s in. He’s been in every time I’ve talked to him,” Nurse said of the native of Mississauga, Ont. “He’s hungry to play and represent his country so that’s great.
“And as far as his game I think him among a lot of other guys have really improved this year, and I can only say that his compete level is way up there, his toughness is up there, his willingness to get down and play defence is way up there and he’s obviously not bashful when it comes to the offensive end.”
The Raptors host Kawhi Leonard and the L.A. Clippers on Tuesday, then could play spoiler against the visiting Chicago Bulls on Thursday. They travel to Dallas on Friday then host Indiana in the regular-season finale on Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2021.