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Raptors Respond to Critical Film Session, Ending 2022 On a High with Victory Over Suns – Sports Illustrated

Thad Young has been here before. In his 16 NBA seasons, he’s played on 11 losing teams and he’s well aware of how these things go.

It, therefore, wasn’t all that surprising when Friday evening began for the Toronto Raptors with an extensive 20-minute film session led exclusively by Nick Nurse. He showed it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly of Thursday night’s embarrassing loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. The issues were plenty and at this point increasingly concerning.

“I’m gonna show them that I’m not backing away from any of that stuff,” said Nurse, clearly frustrated with the team’s inconsistent effort. “I’m gonna show them what they need to do better. That’s the only way I think I can teach ‘em.”

It was necessary, Young told AllRaptors pre-game. Two straight lopsided losses and a 2-8 stretch over the past three weeks isn’t going to cut it.

“When you have those conversations and talks, everybody has to kind of take a look in the mirror and see how we can all help each other get better as a team, as a unit and how we can win basketball games,” Young said.

The meeting was nothing entirely out of the ordinary, Young said. By now, he’s been in at least two dozen of these meetings over the years. And yet, despite his optimism for this team, he understands all too well these meetings don’t always result in change.

This time, though, Nurse got the response he wanted. The Raptors looked like a totally different team Friday night. They were feisty, tough, and physical. When the Phoenix Suns went on their run, Toronto didn’t fold. Instead, it was the most unlikely of heroes who saved the day. A corner three-pointer from Christian Koloko, the first three of his career, followed by an offensive rebound and a free-throw moments later allowed the Raptors to end the year on a positive: 113-104 Toronto.

“I think it’s not the easiest decision in the world when you’re going to do one of those sessions,” Nurse said post-game. “I think you’re rolling the dice a little bit and it’s a roll of the dice that turned out.”

None of it would have been possible without Gary Trent Jr. and Pascal Siakam who carried the Raptors all night. Time after time, Trent came up with big-time buckets, leading Toronto with a game-high 35 points as he wiggled his way into the mid-range before rising up to nail his classic tough two-pointers. Even when it seemed impossible, he spun around late in the fourth, nailing a turnaround jumper over Torrey Craig to tie things up with four minutes to go.

When the Suns finally collapsed around him, using Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton to clog the paint, he threw the kick-out pass to Koloko in the corner.

“That’s just how we drew it up,” Nurse joked.

“He ain’t got no choice, to be honest,” Koloko said of Trent’s decision to pass. “I knew he was going to pass it to me as soon as I saw my man standing (away) from the corner. I told him after the timeout, ‘I appreciate you believing in me, for trusting me on that last pass. It’s the end of the game and I’m not put in that position everyday. And you passed me the ball.’ I was really happy.”

The shot sent Toronto’s bench into a frenzy. Jeff Dowtin Jr. jumped up waving a towel and the Raptors’ coaching staff could barely hide their emotions. For them, it was a developmental success, plenty of hours in the gym working with Koloko to extend his range behind the arc.

“We haven’t seen much of his shooting right, but he’s a pretty good shooter,” Nurse said. “He’s got really good mechanics and touch but in the last, I don’t know, month or so, the player development people have really tried to really work hard with him on starting with his corner threes because we think he’s got good mechanics to do and pretty good touch.”

As for Toronto’s response to Nurse’s meeting, it showed up right away. The Raptors were whizzing around defensively, forcing turnovers, and holding their own on the glass. After a DNP-coach’s decision on Thursday night, Young was among the first off the bench Friday, providing a pair of steals in the first quarter as Toronto jumped up nine courtesy of nine Suns turnovers. 

But, as has been the case all season, it didn’t last. When Pascal Siakam went to the bench, things quickly fell. Six straight wasted possessions for the Raptors and four straight buckets by Phoenix erased all of Toronto’s first-quarter work.

It wasn’t until Siakam returned five minutes into the second quarter that the Raptors began clicking again. He found Trent with a kick-out pass for three and snuck behind the Suns’ defense in transition to connect on one of those full-court touchdown passes Toronto gave up so liberally Thursday night to the Grizzlies. 

“We were aggressive and we were active playing the passes,” said Nurse whose team forced a season-high 25 turnovers leading to 34 points. “We had ‘em a little disruptive most of the night when we did. Thought we really, I thought we played hard. We were on the glass constantly.”

Toronto held tight after the break. A pair of steals from Trent and O.G. Anunoby turned into transition buckets at the other end before Barnes scooped up a bad pass from Josh Okogie leading to a Siakam three-pointer to put Toronto back up double-digits.

When Siakam did need a rest late in the third, Trent stepped up. He nailed a tough step-back jumper and added a pair of free throws, allowing the Raptors to tread water until Siakam could return.

The pre-game meeting was a risky decision by Nurse. He knew there was a chance it could backfire and the spiraling would continue. As he acknowledged, it’s never easy to coach effort. For now, though, it’s working.

“Every time we play like that I feel we have a good chance to win games,” Koloko said.

Up Next: Indiana Pacers

The Raptors will have New Year’s off before opening 2023 against the Indiana Pacers on Monday at 7 p.m. ET.