The Memphis Grizzlies take on the Toronto Raptors tonight in a game featuring two teams seemingly going in very different directions. The Raptors are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, while the Grizzlies appear to be more likely to be hosting a NBA Lottery Party than a playoff series at this point of the season.
To discuss Toronto’s start, and what the Grizzlies can do to beat these Raptors, we reached out to Raptors Republic’s Managing Editor Blake Murphy. Check out Raptors Republic here and follow Blake on Twitter here.
At this point in the season Toronto is clearly one of the top-3 teams in the Eastern Conference. How have the Raptors been able to build an early advantage toward a high playoff seed?
A large part of it is continuity, even with the changes to their system. They're carrying over two stars, four starters, a head coach, and a few rotation pieces. Yeah, guys are in new rolls and have different responsibilities, but especially early in the season, familiarity and chemistry help. On top of that, the offensive changes they promised have taken hold faster than I think anyone expected.
There have been maybe only two or three games where fans got to groan 'same old Raptors,' they've already topped 30 assists more this year than in the past four seasons combined, and the 3-point shooting has settled in close enough to league average for the offense to once again be a top-5 unit. The defense is a work in progress, particularly in the transition game, and even that's sitting right around top-10. So in general, it's a good team off to a good start, to where a 15-7 start is still within the band of expected outcomes (55-win pace), if a bit of an over-performance.
How is our old friend Kyle Lowry doing with his new contract in hand?
Quite well, thank you. Lowry had a pretty shaky October as he tried to figure out his new place in the offense (he's touching the ball much less and running fewer pick-and-rolls), shooting poorly from outside and drawing next to no fouls, two areas that usually make him quite efficient. Since the calendar turned to November, he's been regular old KLOE - he's averaging 17.8 points on 68.5-percent true-shooting, dishing 7.1 assists, and grabbing 6.5 rebounds, all while the team keeps his minutes as low as they've been in years. He's probably more of an opportunity defender than a lock-down guy right now, but his rebounding percentage is in double-digits for the season (historic for a guard his size), and he's drawn more charges (17) than a lot of entire teams have.
All of this is to say, he's been awesome. Pick your metric for further evidence.
Lowry and Derozan get the majority of the attention, but who on this Toronto team is underappreciated, in your eyes?
The real answer is probably Dwane Casey, but nobody really likes reading about coaches, so I'll say C.J. Miles. Lowry and DeRozan get the press, and everyone has been raving about how well the young players (Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl, mostly) have stepped into bigger roles. Miles has been a terrific find, too, and it's the spacing he provides on offense that lets the all-bench unit Casey's been rolling with survive at that end of the floor. He's quickly emerged as a leader, too, essentially quarterbacking a very inexperienced second unit as the veteran presence.
Miles is shooting 39.3 percent on 12.2 threes per-36 minutes, and there's a good case the former could go higher if he sees more time with the stars and in the corners (most of his threes have been above the break, with lesser shooters stationed in the corners). And yes, that 3FGA/36 number could be infinity and I'd be okay with it.
Who on this struggling Memphis roster worries you most heading in to tonight's game whose name isn't Gasol or Evans?
I'm not sure if other fanbases know this, but my son William Lou created what's called The Gerald Henderson Award, which he gives out on his podcast after every game. Basically, the Raptors are so well known for "Random Player X on Struggling Team Y" going off on them, there's a nightly nod to one. The easy answer with Memphis is Dillon Brooks, because there's nothing that would grate fans more than an unheralded Canadian gem falling through the cracks to another team and then killing the Raptors. I'm a really big fan of Brooks' potential as a role player, so while I'll note the bias here, he's my pick.
Why is Toronto so mediocre on the road, and how can the Grizzlies take advantage and beat the Raptors tonight?
I think part of their 6-6 record on the road had to do with early circumstance - they went 3-3 on a very tough west-coast trip to open the season, and while two of the losses were frustrating (close ones against the Spurs and Warriors), only one (Nuggets) was a "bad" loss. Then they took two of three on a Bos-Hou-NO four-day trip, which is more than fine. It's really just the back-to-back awful showings in New York and Indiana two weeks back that stand out, and those were largely the Raptors beating themselves by coming out complacent and entitled for long stretches.
That's not exactly something Memphis can force on the Raptors, so they'll need to focus on Toronto's areas of relative weakness - the boards and transition defense. The Raptors are a little below average rebounding at each end, and teams have really been able to run out on them off of misses and turnovers, getting to the rim or spraying to transition shooters. I know Memphis isn't build for speed or high-volume 3-point shooting, but that's the way to catch Toronto inattentive or frustrated.
Thanks again to Blake and the folks at Raptors Republic!