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Lewenberg: Vindication for Raptors in Gay's homecoming

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Josh Lewenberg
11/14/2013 1:29:20 AM
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MEMPHIS - Rudy Gay has played 244 games in Memphis's FedExForum, perhaps none as vindicating as this one.

Coming off the worst shooting night of his career - one of the worst in league history - in a devastating loss on Monday, the Raptors' forward bounced back at an opportune time for both himself and his team.

For the first time since the three-team trade that sent Gay from the Grizzlies, the only NBA team he had ever known, to Toronto last winter, the 27-year-old returned to Memphis on Wednesday and left with a convincing victory that the Raptors sorely needed.

"I don't think it was for me as much as we needed it anyway," Gay said, deflecting attention off himself moments after he scored 23 points on 8-of-18 shooting in Toronto's 103-87 upset win over the reigning Western Conference finalists in Memphis. 

"For me personally, it was a little emotional, but other than that, especially coming off the Houston loss, we needed this game."

After shooting an abysmal 11-for-37 from the field in the double-overtime loss to the Rockets, Gay eased into his return. He began the game with a concerted effort to get his teammates involved, but when he failed to convert on any of his first four field goal attempts, the look on faces around the arena spoke louder than words.

Here we go again, everyone thought.

But then Gay did what he does best. He kept shooting. This time he got into a rhythm and when he's locked in, as Grizzlies fans remember, he becomes an exceptionally dangerous scorer.

"After last game, I just wanted to get my teammates involved first, move the ball around, get the offence moving and I picked my spots where I wanted to be aggressive," he said.

"I missed shots," he acknowledged of the slow start. "I've missed shots before, last game I missed a lot of shots, so it's nothing. I'm one of those guys that, if I go out there and miss two, I'm going to make sure I make the third."

He missed fou,r but then he made the next one and then the shot after that. In fact, he hit four straight, three of them from beyond the arc and just like that, the Raptors were firing on all cylinders. They led by as many as 15 in the first half, 11 at the break.

The Raptors offence that looked so terrible in Houston followed Gay's lead, as you would imagine. As he looked to distribute, so did DeMar DeRozan. Both players had four assists and Kyle Lowry added six in his best game of the season. As a team, Toronto had 11 assists in 24 minutes, one more than they accumulated in 58 minutes two nights prior.

"It's a lot easier because we drew so much attention," said DeRozan, who had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. It was the first of nine games this season where both he and Gay were effective at the same time.

"One of us has to sacrifice. If we draw two or three guys, we have to kick it to the next man and he'll create for the next player. That's how we have to play. Once we play like that consistently, it's definitely going to be hard to guard us."

The start of the third quarter brought on another 'here we go again' moment. The Grizzlies, as good teams do, made their run led by the explosive Mike Conley, who scored 12 of his game-high 29 points in the period. With 15 minutes left to play, the home team had tied it up at 70. We have seen this narrative before and we know how it plays out, generally.

Perhaps the Raptors have learned something from heartbreaking collapses of the past. Perhaps it was an outlier. But they refused to back down from the Grizzlies, a quality and always-intimidating opponent. They ended the third quarter strong and, by the time the fourth rolled along, the game belonged to Gay. It was his night regardless of whether or not his humility would allow him to accept it.

"That's where you find that extra motivation," DeRozan said, mindful of what this game represented for his teammate. "Every game you look for it somewhere, somehow and tonight we played a lot for him. We knew how much he wanted to come back here and win."

The reception Gay received as he was introduced to the fans before tip-off was primarily a positive one, but by the time the game was out of reach for the home team, they certainly made him feel like an opponent. As Gay drilled a 19-footer midway through the fourth, giving his team their largest lead of the evening at 19, boos rained down from the stands.

"That's when I realized I don't play here anymore," he joked.

What does this game mean in the larger scheme of things? No one knows. The Raptors, at least for now, hope to be a winning team and to do that they'll need to steal games like this. Sure, you can excuse them for cowering to superior teams - Miami, Indiana, Houston - but at some point you need to win one you're not supposed to. They did that on Wednesday and they'll need to do more of it to reach their ultimate goal.

"It was a great night for our team," said Lowry, who finished with 21 points. "The effort we showed tonight is how we should play every night."

Getting to the line

The Raptors set the tone early in the game, aggressively attacking the rim and earning the benefit of the doubt from the officials the rest of the night.

"This is a very physical team and we had to be the aggressor," said Lowry, another former Grizzly. "Their physicality can take anybody out of the game, so our goal tonight was to be really aggressive and try to get to the basket and get to the free throw line as much as we could."

Toronto outscored the Grizzlies 33-11 at the line, outshooting them 39-17 from the stripe.

Quiet, consistent production from Ross

Last season, very little of what rookie Terrence Ross did was quiet. He would exchange several ineffective minutes on the floor - on both ends - for one highlight-calibre dunk that would almost mask the inconsistency that held him back as a player.

For the second straight game, Ross has been quietly useful. He's been efficient offensively, shooting three-of-five, where he may be starting to understand that sometimes less is more and, most importantly, he's been a standout on defence.

"He's very poised out there," Dwane Casey said of Ross, who contributed eight points in 20 minutes off the bench. "He's growing as a player and that's what this year is about for him."

Up next

After playing six of their first nine games on the road to begin the season, the Raptors happily return home for six of their next seven.

They'll host the Chicago Bulls at the Air Canada Centre Friday evening, a game you can catch live on TSN 1050 Radio beginning at 7:00 pm et.

Rudy Gay and Tayshaun Prince (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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