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10 things: Fred VanVleet continues to be Raptors answer in fourth quarters - Sportsnet.ca

10 things: Fred VanVleet continues to be Raptors  answer in fourth quarters - Sportsnet.ca
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One -- That was a satisfying result. The Raptors dug themselves a hole by not being diligent on defence, but overcame a 14-point deficit for a comeback win where just about everyone contributed towards the result. The effort was much stronger in the second half and so too was their execution, and the Raptors have now set themselves up to finish their longest road trip of the year with a respectable 3-3 record. If they bring the same intensity over to the Pacers game, they should take that too.

Two -- The Raptors won because they tightened up their defence. It was far too soft in the first half, where the Raptors were allowing players to back cut them for layups, not being focused enough to secure defensive rebounds, and just generally provided zero resistance in the paint.

Toronto averages 42 points in the paint allowed per game, and yet the Grizzlies had 42 paint points in just the first half alone. The second half was a much different story, though, as Memphis generally struggled to execute. Part of that is a credit to Nick Nurse, who had the Raptors pinch in from the wing on every drive against Ja Morant, which gave the Raptors a 3-on-2 advantage in guarding the pick-and-roll action. But it s an even bigger credit to the players themselves for executing without mistakes.

The Raptors helped off the right shooters, were quick with their rotations, and forced the Grizzlies into making tough jumpers -- which is not their strength as a team.

Three -- Fred VanVleet continues to be the Raptors answer in the fourth quarter. VanVleet was sharp all night, finishing with 23 points on an efficient 9-of-14 shooting with six rebounds and seven assists, and he was near perfect in the fourth.

The Raptors ran essentially the same play each trip down, with Precious Achiuwa giving VanVleet a screen on the left side of the floor where VanVleet can get to the middle, and he picked the Grizzlies apart.

On the first possession, he got deep into the paint for a tough finish over the shot blocker, then he pulled up for three after Achiuwa clipped Morant on the screen, and on the third trip down, VanVleet anticipated that the Grizzlies were coming to trap him, so he went left instead and rejected Achiuwa s screen, which caused the Grizzlies to panic and three defenders converged on him which allowed VanVleet to flip it to a cutting Pascal Siakam for the layup. Then on the next play, VanVleet pushed it in transition and got to the line for two free throws which extended the lead to nine points with three minutes left.

Just as he did against Washington, Indiana, and Orlando earlier in the year, VanVleet has an astute sense for when he should take over, and he s been reliable in the clutch, which is arguably the most important form of leadership in basketball.

Four -- Gary Trent Jr. went on a scoring run of his own in the fourth where he scored 17 points. Trent Jr. was entrusted to lead the second unit at the outset of the final frame, and it was a pivotal moment where the Raptors were trying to finally push ahead after using the third quarter to even things up.

Trent Jr. was nothing short of sensational in how he hunted for his shots, whether it was off the dribble for side-step threes, or attacking the closeout and finishing in the paint or drawing fouls, and also just in broken sequences where Trent Jr. popped free off an offensive rebound or a transition opportunity. He is improving as a shot creator, there s a craftiness and method to how he creates space for himself, and it s an especially valuable asset for the second unit which usually struggles to generate anything offensively. Trent Jr. had a similar push with the reserves in the Raptors win in Sacramento.

Five -- Precious Achiuwa kicked off the comeback with his best stretch as a Raptor. He went scoreless in all other quarters, but had 17 in the third which helped the Raptors eat into the deficit. He started off simple with two cutting dunks off nice drives from VanVleet and Scottie Barnes, which gave him the rhythm to try out his jumper. After nailing the first look off a kick-out pass from Pascal Siakam, Achiuwa just continued to look for his offence at the top of the floor, where he was often open since the Grizzlies sent traps at the Raptors guards.

Achiuwa nailed two threes off swing passes from Trent Jr., and he capped off the quarter with a slick euro step finish in transition, and a putback after winning the offensive rebound against the bigger Steven Adams in the paint. Earlier this week, Nurse talked about Achiuwa having so many tools at his disposal that he sometimes loses track of the basics, and this was very much a performance where Achiuwa started off simple before extending out to the finer points of his game.

And not to be lost in all of the excitement in his offence, but Achiuwa s presence defensively has been strong in all three games since his return.

Six -- Scottie Barnes held it down for the Raptors in the first half. Similar to Achiuwa, it was good to see Barnes play within himself and turn to what he does well. He got in the post for two strong finishes over the defence, which feels like a shot the Raptors should prioritize more often. Then he got out on the break off a pair of steals by VanVleet for two highlight dunks. He also knocked down a catch-and-shoot three although he did have a foot on the line, and swished a runner from halfcourt at the end of the first quarter.

These are the types of plays that will be available for Barnes every night, and if he owns that role like he did tonight, he will finish with close to 20 points on 50-percent-plus efficiency. What was also promising about Barnes showing was that Nurse trusted him to guard Morant at the end of the game after VanVleet picked up his fifth. Nurse told Barnes that he can give Morant a step of space to protect against the drive, but to use his length and quickness to keep Morant in front as much as possible, which is exactly what Barnes did.

Seven -- Yuta Watanabe was sorely missed. Even though he shanked a layup and missed an open corner three, this was a very strong showing from Watanabe who was exactly as advertised with his energy and defence. Watanabe s first sequence of the game was a block a minute into his first shift where he rotated over on time to swat Tyus Jones floater, which sparked a fast break for the Raptors. Then, he got himself on the board by getting to the offensive glass, which he did three times in 14 minutes.

Watanabe continued to make smart plays throughout, including ripping Morant and hitting it ahead to Achiuwa for a layup, and for his finest sequence, Watanabe rotated over to meet Dillon Brooks at the basket after Brooks had freed himself along the baseline. It was initially ruled a foul, but Nurse challenged the play and Watanabe was justifiably rewarded with a block on the play. After the game, Watanabe proudly reflected on the play, saying that he will always have the courage to challenge players at the rim no matter what since that is what the team needs from him. His two steals and two blocks on the night were huge.

Eight -- This was a tough night for Chris Boucher. Not only was he get posterized by Morant, but Nurse benched him for the entire second half. This was always the expected outcome with Watanabe back in the lineup, but it was a surprise that it came so soon. Boucher has had an extremely difficult season, but you can t say he hasn t gotten his chances to redeem himself. What the Raptors need for the second unit is a defensively responsible forward who can knock down threes, and Boucher hasn t delivered on either end. That s not to say he can t get some run, but Nurse has options to turn to and he did so tonight.

Nine -- The second unit as a whole continues to be promising. Trent Jr. has performed well with that group, but so have the individual reserves who are slowly finding their roles.

Dalano Banton made two smart cuts behind the defence and was solid on defence. Malachi Flynn played smart and kept finding shooters between his darting drives to the basket. Svi Mykhailiuk is taking a page out of Trent Jr. s book and hunting his shots whenever possible.

On nights where Khem Birch s knee swelling is more manageable, he brings a dose of stability on defence. And the more that the second unit is able to function, the less Nurse feels the need to ride his starters, who have thus far carried an exorbitant load.

Ten -- Siakam can make such a big difference on defence when he is locked in. First half, Siakam was as guilty as anyone in being late, making mistakes, and just generally lacking physicality with how he guarded.

But in the second half, Siakam was so much sharper, so much more active, in the right spots consistently, and brought the type of leadership that he vowed to bring after his breakout game against the Kings. Siakam had plays where he contested two three-point shooters at once, key stops at the rim in breaking up lob passes, timely defensive rebounds, and was one of the main reasons for Toronto s success in the second half.

Offensively, Siakam picked his spots but did not force his shots nor dominate the offence, which has helped maintain the balance of the team since his return.

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