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3 key takeaways in Raptors shut down of Grizzlies

Yuta Watanabe Raptors Grizzlies

In what may have been the most fun game of the Toronto Raptors’ season to date, they managed to oust the pesky Memphis Grizzlies thanks to a number of thrilling performances.

Toronto is now just one game away (Friday against the Indiana Pacers) from completing its 13-day, six-game road trip, its longest journey of the season. A victory there would push the Raptors right back to a .500 record, a surprisingly nice position to be in considering the hardships the team has gone through to this point. Seven-straight home games follow, and could provide some alleviation as we shift into Christmastime.

For now, here are three key takeaways from the Raptors night that was:

Yuta Watanabe returns for Toronto

For the first time since pre-season, Yuta Watanabe donned a Raptors uniform and trotted out onto the floor to face off against his former club.

His box score line (three points, three rebounds, two steals, two blocks) wasn’t the most flashy, but he looked like himself during his 14 minutes, albeit with an understandable amount of rust on the offensive end. From the moment he checked in he was causing disruptions on defense, deflecting ill-timed passes and swatting shots, and although his shot was a little off, he did a good job of keeping the ball moving and the rhythm of the offense connected.

“He was great. It’s good to have him back,” Fred VanVleet said. “You forget how hard he plays and his length. I cussed him out a couple times about missing the layups but that’s just the relationship we got. I love him. We’re just happy to have him back and see him out there being healthy.”

Watanabe may also legitimately be the Raptors’ best rim protector, which says both something about the state of the team’s front court and his defensive acumen. There’s an innate sense of timing in combination with a high level of schematic understanding that few players have, and Watanabe’s got it in spades. Throw in some impressive size and length, and you’ve got a player head coach Nick Nurse simply won’t be able to keep out of the rotation.

“Thought [Watanabe] was awesome,” Nurse said. “He ran down some loose balls when we were really having trouble doing that, he kept a few alive at the offensive end, had a great block. Just some really good hard play.”

As many players (Pascal Siakam being a recent example) have noted, the first game back from a difficult injury such as Watanabe’s (strained calf) is actually usually the easiest one. It wouldn’t be surprising if there were some rough patches ahead. But for now, it’s just good to see one of Toronto’s top role players back in action.

Gary Trent Jr. explosion

Gary Trent Jr. has now scored 18 or more points in six of his last seven games, with the lone exception being against the Golden State Warriors’ league-leading defense.

He began Wednesday night’s game off a little bit slowly, too, missing some of the shots he normally makes, and it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that he absolutely erupted, raining down fire upon the poor unsuspecting Grizzlies.

“[It was] just my teammates finding me, coach Nurse believing in me,” Trent said, “calling certain sets, putting me in position to either score the basketball or make a play for somebody else. That’s really just about it.”

He scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the frame, penetrating the lane for floaters, drilling side-step and step-back triples, and pulling up for midrange jumpers. Trent finished a +13 and boasted a 66.2 percent true shooting percentage.

It’s beginning to become a regular expectation that Trent will hit any shot with a hand in his face, which is both an admittedly dangerous expectation to have and a testament to just how reliable a scorer he’s been this season, and in a multitude of scenarios.

Fred VanVleet, Certified Closer

Here’s a fourth quarter sequence for you: With the game in its waning minutes, VanVleet drives hard directly into the paint and scores a hooked layup in traffic; he assists a Siakam score right at the rim; he responds to a Ja Morant basket with a pull-up triple in semi-transition; and finally he gets fouled to go to the free throw line where he makes both shots.

“[VanVleet] really got in a rhythm,” Nurse said. “We were running the same play over and over and he found every way to get them. He hit them on a roll, he hit them on a kick-out, he hit a slashing cutter, he rejected and laid it in once and then he came off and banged a three once. So he found just about every option on those fives-straight possessions.”

We shan’t dally to much on this subject, as it’s something that’s been discussed here before and shall certainly be discussed here in the future again, but VanVleet is having himself a magnificent season, both from a general development standpoint and in his new role as the de facto on- and off-court leader.

Every time the team has needed him most this season, he’s found a way to muster the willpower to make something happen, even if it hasn’t always resulted in a win.

VanVleet finished his night with 23 points, six rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and two blocks on 77.3 percent true shooting, doing a little bit of everything. If the Raptors are somehow good enough to warrant an all-star representative by the midway mark, he should certainly be the one getting the nod.