NBA

Lewenberg: Vasquez sparks Raptors statement win over Grizzlies

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Josh Lewenberg
3/15/2014 1:57:54 AM
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TORONTO - When Greivis Vasquez was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies, selected with the 28th overall pick in 2010, he joined an emerging Western Conference power.

At the time of the selection, the Grizzlies were coming off a promising campaign, the first for frontcourt duo Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph together in Memphis.

Helmed by now former coach Lionel Hollins, the 2010-11 Grizzlies were one of the most improved teams in the league, building a defensive foundation that sticks with them to this day while finishing 10 games over .500, defeating the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs and taking the Thunder to seven games in the Conference Semifinals.

Vasquez, a 24-year-old, Venezuelan-born rookie from the University of Maryland, was along for the ride.

He played in 70 regular season games, backing up Mike Conley and helping the Grizzlies snap a four-year playoff draught - appearing in 13 postseason contests - before being traded to New Orleans ahead of the following, lockout shortened campaign. Memphis has not missed the postseason since.

"I've got respect for them because they gave me an opportunity to be in this league," said the fourth-year point guard, poised to make his second postseason appearance with the Raptors next month.

"That's a tough team to beat," he continued following his new team's impressive 99-86 win over the one that drafted him. "We beat a playoff team and that was a good win for us at home."

Aside from new coach Dave Joerger - a former assistant under Hollins - and last year's trade of Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies haven't changed much. They're still a defensive juggernaut - ranked third in opponent points per game, just ahead of the Raptors - and they still feature the daunting interior pair of Gasol and Randolph.

They still embody physical, hard-nosed, playoff-calibre basketball and the Raptors - looking ahead to their own postseason birth - took it right to them.

It was another valuable test for Dwane Casey's team, not unlike the one they failed in Brooklyn earlier this week, but this time they passed with flying colours.

"I don't mean this in a bad way with Memphis because I love the style of defence they play," Casey said, "but the only way you can challenge a bully is if you hit them first."

"I don't think we did that in the first quarter," Casey said in reference to Toronto's timid start. "We did in the second quarter and they responded. You've got to have a physical mentality against a team like that and I thought our guys did that after the first quarter."

Vasquez had a lot to do with that turnaround.

He may not be the fastest, the quickest or the strongest but there are few who play the game harder. His energy was infectious, as it tends to be, when he entered the game late in the first quarter and it carried over into the second, where the Raptors ended the half on a 19-6 run.

About 30 minutes later he changed the game again, this time for good. With the score knotted up at 80, midway through the fourth, Vasquez knocked down a 27-foot pull-up three. As the Grizzlies came up the floor, he picked off a pass and went coast-to-coast for layup. It was the biggest sequence of the night, ironically initiating a second 19-6 run to close out the victory.

"Obviously physicality is going to be the big factor [in the playoffs]," said Vasquez, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds and six assists Friday. "We play physical, we punch teams and we let them know that it's not going to be easy for any team to come to our house and beat us like that and that's what we did tonight."

Usually relegated to 17-22 minutes per night, mostly playing in the understudy role to starter Kyle Lowry, Vasquez logged 28. With the Grizzlies playing small in the backcourt, Casey was able to pair Vasquez and Lowry for over eight minutes in both the second and fourth quarters. With the two point guards sharing the court for 19 minutes, the Raptors scored 23 points more than they allowed.

Playing alongside the other, both Vasquez and Lowry were at their best on this night. Lowry - who totalled 22 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists - was able to play off the ball and spot up for jumpers, while Vasquez could get in the lane and facilitate with more space.

For Vasquez - as he realizes - the obvious benefit to spending more time on the floor with Lowry is spending more time on the floor, period.

"I think we should do it more often if you ask me but I'm not the head coach," Vasquez said. "[Coach is] doing a great job leading us to win games. Obviously Coach Casey is an outstanding coach and today he gave me a chance to come off the bench and play with a rhythm and I got the job done."

Vasquez, a starter in New Orleans last season, has seen sporadic playing time since arriving in the trade from Sacramento. Generally, when he has played more he has played well but the opportunity for playing time at the position is scarce. It is what it is, as Casey would say. Lowry is playing at an extremely high level and pairing them together is something that can only work in long stretches if the matchup permits it.

"When I play regular minutes it allows me to have a presence in the game," he said. "A lot of times it's really, really hard coming off the bench and just being effective or having a presence in the game real quick."

For the most part, the Raptors have had success playing Lowry and Vasquez together this season, keeping in mind it's only been done in favourable situations. In 346 minutes with the two point guards on the floor, the Raptors have outscored their opponents by 102 total points, per NBA.com/stats.

With Casey looking to manufacture some rest for Lowry over the final five weeks of the season, playing him off the ball more often could be the solution.

"It's easier for me," said Lowry, asked about playing alongside Vasquez, "because we've got a guy who is going to look for me and who can make the play. He gives me a chance to rest and hang out and shoot open threes. When he's playing like that, we're a pretty good team."

Vasquez and Jonas Valanciunas - who scored a season-high 23 points - both came up big for Toronto's offence with Memphis' elite perimeter defence locked into DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. The Raptors' two wing players shot a combined 6-for-16 Friday.

Greivis Vasquez (Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
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