Raptors present another tough challenge for Grizzlies

NBA Basketball

The Memphis Grizzlies embark on a rough stretch of games to close out the NBA regular season when they take on the Toronto Raptors in the NBA bubble on Sunday afternoon near Orlando.

Memphis (33-37) begins play Sunday clinging to the No. 8 playoff position in the Western Conference, but with five teams still in hot pursuit. Four of the five — Portland, San Antonio, New Orleans and Sacramento — also play Sunday on a day that could see significant shuffling in the Western race.

The Grizzlies already have clinched no worse than a spot in the NBA’s new play-in tournament. They need to retain the No. 8 spot in the standings to gain a huge advantage once the clubs reach that stage.

In order to hold its position, Memphis must also deal with Boston and Milwaukee to close out the regular season.

The Grizzlies snapped a four-game losing streak in the bubble with a much needed 121-92 thumping of Oklahoma City on Friday. Jonas Valanciunas led the way with a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double, while Dillon Brooks had a team-high 22 points and Ja Morant scored 19.

Three reserves also scored in double figures in the type of effort coach Taylor Jenkins hopes is contagious.

“It was great, the energy on the floor,” he told reporters afterward. “You could see the energy on the bench. Naturally happens when you’re winning, but we just got to harness that again.”

The Grizzlies have had to overcome the emotional downer of losing standout forward Jaren Jackson Jr. for the season with a knee injury.

Morant has been unable to take up the slack, averaging 19.4 points but shooting just 39.8 percent overall and 21.4 percent on 3-pointers since the restart.

The Grizzlies might catch a break since the Raptors (49-19) have little at stake. They stand second in the East and need just one win in their last four games or one Boston loss in its last three in order to clinch the No. 2 seeding.

The Celtics play the Orlando Magic on Sunday.

Toronto had a chance to lock up the second seed on Friday, but suffered its first loss at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, trailing by as many as 40 before falling 122-100 to the Celtics. The Raptors had won seven straight bridging the four-month break.

Defense was the issue in the loss to Boston. Toronto had held its first three opponents since the restart to 103 points or fewer, including two of three under 100.

The Raptors’ offense couldn’t keep up the pace, with standout Pascal Siakam held to 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting.

“Some nights they just don’t go in,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse told reporters about Siakam’s off night. “And then for the rest of it, nobody else was picking up the slack.”

Fred VanVleet has been Toronto’s leading scorer in the restart, averaging 20.8 points.

The Raptors take on the East’s top team, Milwaukee, on the second day of a back-to-back Monday.

Toronto and Memphis have not met previously this season.

–Field Level Media

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