The marquee matchup at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night between the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies was one that was set up perfectly, as these two franchises (who in the past, both called Canadian soil home), mirror each other in more ways than one.
The contrast in conference equality has reared its ugly head once again, as the two clubs entered this heavyweight bout with almost identical records. While Toronto is on the verge of acquiring home court advantage in the East, Memphis currently resides in a Western Conference dogfight, at risk of missing the playoffs altogether.
Trivia time: When was the last time the Raptors actually claimed victory against the Grizzlies on their own floor? (Not including the ugly sweater party of its Vancouver days.)
Answer: April 9, 2009. Who was running the Memphis point back then? Current Raptors All-Star snubbed floor general and captain of their ship, Kyle Lowry. The added drama of the Grizzlies’ organization ultimately choosing Mike Conley over Lowry only added gasoline to the already rising Raptors campfire.
Both squads install similar game plans, with the ability to run-and-gun on a dime, while excelling when scaling it back in the half court set. Not to mention, the fact that the pair are part of the chosen few, ones who can fill it up on offense coupled with a gritty and tenacious mindset on the defensive end. Ranking third (Memphis 94.8) and fourth (Toronto 97.0) in opponents points per game.
In a bubble, Jonas Valanciunas deserves his due praise. Going up against the inside presence of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is a truly daunting task. With doubts of his physicality beginning to set in, the 7-foot Lithuanian sent a clear message that a transition is taking place. Consistency is the only thing left to prove.
As expected, fans were privy to an entertaining and physical fight to the finish; during the third quarter that is. However, other than Toronto prevailing with a whirlwind fourth quarter, something bigger is brewing here –the sweet smell of playoff success is in the air and a movement has been formed. The Raptors are no longer part of the Eastern Conference situation comedy.
Bold Predictions: The Grizzlies will claim the 8-seed in the West and prove to be a formidable opponent once again. As for the Raptors, well, meet the NBA‘s Eastern Conference finalists.