TORONTO – Jonas Valanciunas isn’t likely to forget February 7, 2019 – the day he found out he had been traded.
It was late afternoon in Atlanta and moments before the NBA’s trade deadline buzzer would have allowed him to breath a sigh of relief and shift his focus back to that evening’s game against the Hawks – what would’ve been his return from a thumb injury that had cost him the previous two months.
That sigh of relief never came. Instead, he received the news. After spending his first six and a half seasons with the Raptors, he had been dealt to Memphis – along with Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a second-round pick – for veteran centre Marc Gasol.
“That was my first trade, I had never been traded [before],” Valanciunas said ahead of Monday’s reunion with his former team – a 128-113 comeback win for Toronto. “At the time, I was kind of shocked because you don’t know what you’re going through and it’s kind of a new thing for you. But I adapted, I’m feeling good.”
“I just remember sitting down with him for a little bit,” said Nick Nurse. “Just talking about [how] this kinda stuff happens in the league, stay positive, and I’m sure it’ll be a good home for him. And it’s turned out to be a good home for him.”
Two years and one day later, both sides have moved on.
Valanciunas signed a lucrative contract with the Grizzlies a few months after the trade and has helped accelerate his new team’s rebuild, fitting in well with its young core.
Of course, the Raptors went on to win the title that season and that probably wouldn’t have happen without Gasol, who’s defence and veteran savvy proved crucial along the way, particularly in neutralizing Joel Embiid during that memorable seven-game, second-round series against Philadelphia.
Even without an active player left to show for that deal – with Valanciunas in Memphis and Gasol leaving for the Lakers over the off-season – the championship banner hanging at Scotiabank Arena is all the closure the Raptors need. Based on the way things turned out, it’s hard to imagine they’ve got any regrets.
Still, it was hard to watch Monday’s contest – or the first half of it, anyway – without thinking; that big Lithuanian would look pretty good wearing his old No. 17 for Toronto again.
Before fans get any ideas, there’s no reason to think that Valanciunas is on the market. He’s got one year left on his deal and, to reiterate, the Grizzlies seem happy with what he’s brought since arriving in Memphis. But with the Raptors stumbling through an 11-13 start to the 2020-21 season and in desperate need of some consistent production from a traditional centre following the departures of Gasol and Serge Ibaka, it’s clear they could use somebody like Valanciunas.
Facing his old club for the second time, JV made sure to remind them of their glaring need at the five. The 28-year-old was as dominant as ever. He and Australian big man Aron Baynes have had some hard-fought battles over the years – internationally and in the NBA – but Baynes didn’t have a chance this time around. The Raptors didn’t seem to have an answer for Valanciunas.
JV had a first half double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds. To put that into perspective, Baynes didn’t grab his first defensive board of the game until early in the third quarter. Dating back to Saturday’s loss to Atlanta, Baynes – Toronto’s 6-foot-10 starting centre – went 27 straight minutes without grabbing a single rebound.
Late in the first half, Valanciunas simply out muscled three Raptors players – Baynes, Stanley Johnson and Fred VanVleet – on the offensive glass and managed to get a shot off while being held down and fouled by Baynes. With three minutes left in the third quarter, he caught the ball just outside of the key and used his size and strength advantage to overpower Chris Boucher and get to the rim.
As it turned out, that would end up being a crucial point in the game. Moments later, Nurse was ejected after picking up his second technical foul of the night for arguing with the officials. His team had already given up 92 points and was down by seven. From there, they outscored Memphis 43-19.
Playing without the injured OG Anunoby, who missed his sixth straight game with a calf injury, and after losing Kyle Lowry to back spasms in the first quarter, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell combined to score 93 points on 29-of-49 shooting and 15-for-24 from three-point range.
Whatever sparked them – whether it was Nurse getting tossed, VanVleet’s impassioned speech during a huddle, or maybe they just got tired of watching Valanciunas bully them in the paint and flipped the switch – it worked. Boucher played the final 17 minutes and mostly held his own in a tough matchup with JV, though Toronto sent multiple defenders at the Grizzles centre when he caught the ball in the post and attacked him in the pick and roll on offence – a formula opposing teams used to use to neutralize Valanciunas when he was with the Raps.
In that regard, Monday’s game also served as a reminder of why Dwane Casey would often close games with Valanciunas on the bench, or why Nurse opted to platoon him with Ibaka. For all of his strengths offensively, there are still ways of exploiting his physical limitations on defence, especially late in games or when teams play small.
He’s not a perfect modern big, though he has worked hard to adapt his game over the years, but he makes up for that by excelling at the things he does well; rebounding, scoring efficiently around the bucket and getting to the free throw line – all things that the Raptors badly need from the centre position.
Baynes appeared to be turning the corner a bit after his rough start to the season, but there’s no way to sugar coat it – he’s been a major disappointment, even based on the relatively modest expectations the team had when they signed him to help fill the void at the five. Alex Len, the other traditional big man that they added, was waived after a forgettable nine-game stint with the team.
Outside of Boucher, who’s had a strong start to the campaign and gives them a different look, the Raptors are still searching for answers at the position. More and more, it’s looking like that answer isn’t currently on the roster.
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