There’s a strong argument to be made that Wednesday’s 96-92 come-from-behind win by the Toronto Raptors (9-2) over the red hot Memphis Grizzlies could be at least somewhat credited to a stomach virus that sidelined five Memphis regulars (Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, Beno Udrih, Kosta Koufos and Jon Leuer, among them).
But you’d be hard-pressed to make that argument if you had watched the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s game. Even if Memphis standouts like Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and MIke Conley – all of whom played, by the way – were a little more gassed than usual, the Raps were playing at such a high level that there aren’t many healthy clubs out there that would have been able to weather their attack.
Terrence Ross and Chuck Hayes (yes, Chuck Hayes) led the charge in a 27-17 fourth In which the Raptors found their defensive edge against the Grizzlies, who entered the match-up with the best record in the NBA.
Before the fourth quarter placed the focus firmly on an exciting present, the night had been primarily about the past. A Vince Carter video tribute in the first quarter elicited a big ovation, mixed with scattered boos, and an emotional response from Vinsanity, himself.
Chuck takes charge
Hayes’ stat line on Wednesday – 10 minutes played, two rebounds, no points, no shots – doesn’t exactly scream game-changer, but Dwane Casey wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek when he referred to the burly vet as the game’s MVP. Tasked with keeping Gasol in check after Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t (a healthy James Johnson probably gets that role, but he’d still struggle with Gasol’s physicality), Hayes set the defensive tone for the whole club by not backing down and forcing Gasol into fading, off-balance shots. Its no coincidence that Hayes played the last 10:02 of the game and Memphis made just four field goals during that stretch (he was a +8 on the night).
Credit for that great slogan goes to Gareth Wheeler via Twitter. Its a long-standing adage in sports that it isn’t how you start but how you finish – and the Raps are currently the league’s best finishers. A season-long (all 11 games of it) trend of fourth quarter dominance has crystallized itself of late, leading to this last three-game stretch in which they’ve outscored the opposition 44-21 in the game’s final five minutes.
Raps get out-toughed
Even after Toronto’s big fourth quarter, evidence remained in the final box score that Memphis out-muscled and out-scrapped them for much of the game. The Grizzlies finished the game with a commanding 50-35 advantage on the boards and got to the line twice as many times (26, compared to 13 for the typically free throw-dominant Raps). Led by Gasol and Z-Bo, the Grizz used savvy interior spacing, body control and a few favorable whistles to gain a physical edge.
The unofficial VC night delivered in some interesting ways. There was mom Michelle Carter, an infamous figure in Raptor lore, clad in a showy fur coat and sitting courtside with Nav “Super Fan” Bhatia. There was a conflicted crowd, featuring plenty of Carter jerseys but also the odd baby bib with No. 15 on it. And of course, there were the much-discussed tears, which I didn’t see coming but which made sense in light of his hearing cheers at the ACC for the first time since he suited up in the home locker room. All in all, not your average mid-week tilt.
Stomach viruses aside, it is Memphis’ continuity and reliability that has buoyed them in light of some unexpected happenings atop the West. The Thunder has limped out to a panic-worthy start, the Clippers don’t look like the Clippers and the Spurs have yet to hit their stride, leaving the door open for the Grizzlies’ strong start. Most impressively, Memphis has started the year with a 7-0 record within their own deadly conference.
Raptor fans get their first look at Jabari Parker as the Milwaukee Bucks visit on Friday (7:30pm, TSN), fresh off a 3OT win in Brooklyn. The threat of a letdown game looms large, with Toronto coming off of a big win and readying for a Saturday trip to visit LeBron and the Cavs and the Bucks, having won three in a row for a tidy 7-5 record, quietly playing some solid basketball.
Prediction: Raps 106, Bucks 100 (record this season: 8-2)