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After looking lost, Raptors find their old defensive identity just in time

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Though it looked like the same old record of late would play once again, the Toronto Raptors instead seemed to rediscover themselves against the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night.

The last time the Raptors played, on Sunday against the world-beating Golden State Warriors, they couldn’t do anything to stop the three-point line. Toronto conceded the corners again and again, allowing the Dubs to get uncorked to the tune of an astounding 22-of-45 mark from deep.

Two days later, against a not-nearly-as-great Grizzlies team, it looked as if the Raptors were going to get drilled in the opposite manner, as they gave up 42 points in the paint and 60.5 per cent shooting to the Grizzlies at half time — but then they finally found their old defensive identity.

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The Raptors stormed back in the second half and came away with a 126-113 victory, improving their record on this current road trip to 2-3 with one more game left to play Friday night in Indianapolis.

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The Raptors entered Wednesday’s affair as one of the better teams in the league at defending the paint, conceding just 42.3 points per game on the inside. However, like much else of the team’s defence of late, that completely cratered in the first half against the Grizzlies, who enjoyed a 71-59 halftime lead.

Granted, the Raptors did have a pretty good excuse for not being able to defend the paint as well as they normally have. The Grizzlies entered the game averaging 53.1 points in the paint per game – good for second-best in the league – and Toronto was, once again, shorthanded as OG Anunoby missed his fourth straight game with that left hip pointer injury and the problematic swelling in Khem Birch’s right knee returned, forcing him to miss Wednesday’s game.

Still, even with how good the Grizzlies are in the paint and with the Raptors shorthanded, Wednesday’s dismal defensive performance in that first half was indicative of a larger trend that’s plagued the Raptors of late.

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To begin the season, Toronto’s high-risk, high-reward defence looked to be working out beautifully. The team was creating turnovers, getting out in transition and were rock-solid defensively, owning a 102.4 defensive rating over their first nine games where they went 6-3. Since then, however, while the Raptors have still managed to create turnovers and get out and run, the team went 2-7 and saw their defensive rating take a nosedive, entering Wednesday’s game at just 116.6.

The defensive identity that was supposed to be the Raptors’ calling card has seemingly been either all but abandoned or simply couldn’t be executed and, in the first half of Wednesday’s game, it was again trending that way.

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From easy backdoor cuts to just outright incredible attacks of the rim from Grizzlies star Ja Morant (who finished the game with 23 points, nine assists and a nasty dunk on Toronto’s Chris Boucher) the Raptors offered very little in the way of resistance to Memphis’ concerted attack of the paint.

Thankfully for Toronto, however, the Grizzlies are probably the worst defensive team in the league and, in the third quarter, Memphis began to show its real stripes. Toronto was getting essentially anything it wanted at-will, opening the period on a 17-5 run and finishing the frame trailing just 92-91.

In the quarter, Precious Achiuwa scored all 17 of his points and played more freely than in his previous games so far with the Raptors.

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“He just got on a tear like we haven’t really seen,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse.

Come the fourth quarter, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet picked up where Achiuwa left off. Trent scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the period, including a triple with 5:44 left in the frame that sparked a 13-2 run. During that stretch, VanVleet scored a driving layup, dropped a dime to Pascal Siakam – who was alright himself with 17 points and seven assists – and drilled a dagger three to put the game out of reach.

“He really got in a rhythm there. He kinda, no big secret, we were running the same play over and over and he found about every way to get him,” said Nurse of VanVleet’s run. “He was really orchestrating there.”

But as strong as Achiuwa and Trent were in those third and fourth quarters, respectively, it wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for some rock-solid defence played by the Raptors, who looked like their old selves from earlier in the season, holding the Grizzlies to just 41 per cent shooting from the floor, highlighted by an incredible block by Yuta Watanabe (who made his season debut after missing all of the regular season beforehand with a left calf strain) on Canadian Dillon Brooks in the fourth quarter.

“We just played hard, played like we cared. We’re a young team. Sometimes it’s hard to stress the urgency and what it takes to win in this league every night,” said VanVleet, who had 23 points, six rebounds and seven assists Wednesday evening. “You can’t go out there and go through the motions or you’re gonna have a team put 71 on you in the first half and then you’ll be fighting uphill. Luckily, we were able to turn it around, but it’s not really the way we want to live going forward.”

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Added Nurse: “I think it’s just overall energy that translates from one end to the other. There was plenty of screws to be turned after that first-half defence. … I always talk about this, when your defensive execution [is good] and you start doing the schemes, and you start playing help defence, it always turns into playing better execution and helps offence, if that makes any sense.”

There’s a good chance that the Raptors wouldn’t have given themselves a chance to tighten things up in that second half had it not been for some second-quarter heroics from rookie phenom Scottie Barnes, who shook off a couple ineffective games with a 17-point, nine-rebound outburst that saw him go off for 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the second quarter alone.

Like the return of the Raptors’ defence, seeing Barnes return to form was a welcome sight.

“I think he had a couple nights where he just didn’t quite have it. That’s OK. We’ve all been there. As a rookie, we’re certainly asking him to do a lot. We need him to produce in order for us to be good,” said VanVleet of Barnes. “He turned it around tonight, so that was good to see. The effort and the intensity and the attention to detail, those things have got to be non-negotiable. Whatever else comes after that, we’ve got to take it in stride. I’m just trying to support him the best I can and I thought he was great tonight from the jump.”

For the past nine games the Raptors have looked lost, and decidedly unlike themselves – or the versions of themselves that most expect them to be. Their problems of late nearly reared their ugly heads again, but it looks like they found themselves just in the nick of time and what was shaping up to be a disastrous road trip now could end rather well for them.

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LeBron James on whether Kyrie Irving can help Lakers: 'Duh'

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LeBron James has no doubt that Kyrie Irving would make the Lakers a contender, but he noted that he’s not in the team’s front office.



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NBA Roundup: Gilgeous-Alexander drops 42 in Thunder win; Clippers top Knicks in OT

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 42 points and Oklahoma City set a Thunder record for points to rout Houston.

Oklahoma City surpassed the 150 it scored in a win over the Boston Celtics last month.

Gilgeous-Alexander shot 7 for 23 in a loss to the Rockets on Wednesday night. He bounced back to make 14 of 23 field goals in the rematch, falling two points short of his career high. The first-time All-Star also made 14 of 15 free throws and had six assists.

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Josh Christopher and TyTy Washington each scored 20 points for Houston.

NETS 125, WIZARDS 123

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NEW YORK — Cam Thomas scored a career-high 44 points off the bench and short-handed Brooklyn overcame a 23-point deficit to beat Washington.

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Edmond Sumner also set a personal best with 29 points. Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving was out with what the team said was right calf soreness a day after he told the Nets he wants to be traded.

The Nets, who also played without Kevin Durant (right knee MCL sprain), T.J. Warren (left shin contusion) and Ben Simmons (left knee soreness), also lost Seth Curry (left adductor) and Markieff Morris (sore left knee) in the game.

Kristaps Porzingis led the Wizards with 38 points.

SUNS 116, PISTONS 100

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DETROIT — Deandre Ayton had 31 points and 16 rebounds to help Phoenix beat Detroit.

The surging Sungs have won eight of 10 games, including a victory at Boston on Friday night, and have help on the way with Devin Booker nearing his return. The three-time All-Star guard has been out since Christmas with a groin injury, but dunked in warmups in another sign that he’s close to coming back.

Chris Paul had 14 assists for a balanced offence that didn’t need him to make shots, finishing 0 for 7 and without a field goal for the first time since March 18, 2017, when he helped the Los Angeles Clippers beat Cleveland by 30 points.

Mikal Bridges scored 24 points, Cameron Johnson had 20 points and Torrey Craig added 14 points for Phoenix. Saddiq Bey had 25 points for Detroit.

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BUCKS 123, HEAT 115

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had a triple-double with 35 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists and Milwaukee beat short-handed Miami for its seventh straight victory.

Jimmy Butler scored 32 points and Tyler Herro added 24 for the Heat, who had just nine available players. Notable injured Miami players included Kyle Lowry (sore left knee) and Victor Oladipo (sprained right ankle).

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Antetokounmpo had his third triple-double of the season and 32nd of his career. The 11 assists matched his season high.

Antetokounmpo’s latest triple-double came two nights after he scored 54 points in a 106-105 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. During the Bucks’ six-game winning streak, Antetokounmpo is averaging 39.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists.

WARRIORS 119 MAVERICKS 113

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SAN FRANCISCO — Stephen Curry had 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds before injuring his left leg defending a drive and Golden State beat an undermanned Dallas team missing injured star Luka Doncic.

The Warriors said X-rays for Curry were negative, and he will have an MRI exam.

Draymond Green added 17 points, nine rebounds and nine assists for Golen State.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 25 points for Dallas. Doncic bruised his right heel in the third quarter of 111-106 home victory against New Orleans on Thursday night.

PELICANS 131, LAKERS 126

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NEW ORLEANS — LeBron James moved 36 points away from breaking the NBA career scoring record in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 131-126 loss to New Orleans on Saturday night that ended the Pelicans’ losing streak at 10 games.

James had 27 points to go with nine rebounds and six assists as he continued to close in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record total of 38,387 points.

Brandon Ingram scored 35 points for the Pelicans.

CJ McCollum had 23 points, highlighted by a late 3 to help New Orleans close out the final 3:14 on a 9-5 run that kept the Lakers at bay.

Anthony Davis had 34 points and 14 rebounds for the Lakers.

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CLIPPERS 134, KNICKS 128, OT

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NEW YORK — Kawhi Leonard scored 35 points, Paul George added 30 and Los Angeles beat New York in overtime.

After the Clippers lost a 17-point fourth quarter lead, Nicolas Batum’s 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer tied it at 115.

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The Clippers scored the first four points of overtime and never relinquished the lead. Leonard connected on all of his eight free throws in the extra session, finishing 12 for 12 from the line.

Norman Powell added 24 points for the Clippers and Marcus Morris Sr. had 17. Los Angeles has won seven of nine.

Jalen Brunson, who returned after missing a game due to a non-COVID illness, led the Knicks with 41 points. Julius Randle had 28.

BULLS 129, TRAIL BLAZERS 121

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CHICAGO — Zach LaVine scored 36 points, DeMar DeRozan had 27 and Chicago topped Damian Lillard and Portland.

Nikola Vucevic added 23 points and 11 rebounds as Chicago won for the third time in four games, erasing a 17-point deficit in the second half.

Lillard scored 40 points for Portland, and Anfernee Simons had 27. But the Trail Blazers looked a little tired in the second half of their third game in four nights. Portland had won five of six, including a 124-116 victory at Washington on Friday night.

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Tre White's 22 points leads USC to hard-fought 80-74 victory over Washington

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Tre White led the USC Trojans to the hard-fought 80-74 win over the Washington Huskies. White led all scorers on the night with 22 points and added eight rebounds on the night.



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