The Toronto Raptors finally ended their nasty 6 game losing streak after Andrea Bargnani's impressive return to the lineup Tuesday against the Suns. The HQ's Scott Campsall has all the details, including some interesting lineup choices for Coach Dwayne Casey.
Last night the Toronto Raptors narrowly defeated the Phoenix suns 99-96, mercifully putting an end to their 8-game losing streak this season. The win also marks the Raptors' first victory over Phoenix since February of 2004.
The win was due in large part to the outstanding performance of Andrea Bargnani who started slowly, but exploded in the third quarter to score 18 of his 36 points on the night. Bargnani's effort gave a huge lift to the Raptors' offense who had struggled mightily at that end of the floor in Bargnani's 6 game absence.
Like Bargnani, the Raptors got off to a poor start in the first quarter. The Raptors managed just 17 first quarter points and surrendered 27 to the Suns. Things were not looking good for the Dinos after the first, but the second unit came in and was the driving force behind the Raptors' comeback in the second.
Leandro Barbosa's shooting in the second was pivotal in getting the Dinos back into the game. Barbosa made all 3 of his three-point attempts in the quarter and finished with 19 points on 7 of 14 shooting from the floor. This was one of Barbosa's more efficient outings of the season, proving that when Barbosa is locked in he is a difference maker for this offensively challenged Raptors squad.
The Raptors experimented with a little zone in that second quarter which helped settle the defense and cause a few turnovers that really stabilized the Raps on that end of the floor. Following a 7-2 run, the Raptors went into halftime trailing by just 4.
This effort carried over into the third quarter when Andrea Bargnani went off. Il Mago poured in 18 points including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc. He and Calderon ran the pick and roll masterfully leading to a number of wide open looks for the Italian center. After witnessing a quarter like that it is difficult to contend that the Raptors missed his offensive prowess.
In the fourth, the Raptors allowed the Suns to crawl back into the game. Following a stretch of five straight misses by the Raps, the Suns shredded the Raptors defense and brought the game within 4 points.
It was at this point that the Raptors again turned to their leading scorer to get them a bucket to seal the deal, and he came through-- with ice in his veins, Bargnani nailed a pull-up jumper to extend the lead to 7 with under a minute to go. Or, at least, it should have sealed the game; the Raptors gave up a couple easy layups to Nash, and then a wide open dunk by Jared Dudley after Rasual Butler threw the ball away on an errant inbound pass.
That, however, was as close as the Suns would get in this one. Andrea Bargnani would go on to hit the 2 free throws that properly iced the game and sink the Suns for good.
It would be a stretch to say that the Raptors played well defensively-they allowed the Suns to shoot 48%--but the Dinos did get some big stops when they needed them, and overcame a late Suns ralley to get the victory.
Also of note was the play of forward James Johnson. Johnson has had a rocky start to the season, but seems to be coming along as of late. Johnson had 23 points Friday against Portland and produced 18 last night against the Suns; Johnson has shown more confidence in his jump shot and is mixing up his offense a lot better by slashing to the bucket and creating shorter shots for himself rather than settling for long jumpers-a habit that is the cause of much frustration in Raptorland. Johnson added 10 rebounds and some solid defense that the Raptors needed in order to get passed the Suns.
I would be remiss to talk about this game and not mention the variety of lineups that Casey utilized over the course of this contest.
For starters, quite literally, Casey opted to replace Amir Johnson with Aaron Gray, a move that was no doubt motivated by Amir's perceived lackadaisical play against the Clippers. Gray gave the Raptors some solid minutes, yet Johnson proved to be more valuable by making a number of great hustle plays in the second half, which included one outstanding rebound in traffic that resulted in a loose ball foul and free throws for Johnson.
We also saw Casey sit Demar Derozan for an extended period of time. Demar played just 23 minutes in rather unimpressive fashion. Ed Davis was another player who received very limited playing time; Davis played only 3 minutes after picking up 3 quick fouls in the first half and was banished to the bench for the remained of the game.
With these players on the bench Coach Casey experimented with different, smaller lineups. In crunch time the Raptors sent out a lineup that featured Calderon, Barbosa, and James Johnson with Kleiza at the four and Bargnani at the 5. This lineup would prove to be extremely effective as it allowed the Raptors to stretch the floor with Klieza and Barbosa, leaving a wide open lane for Bargnani and Calderon to run the screen and roll. Defensively, it gave the Raptors a quicker lineup that matched up well with the smaller Suns lineup that Alvin Gentry likes to employ.
The Raptors will now look to carry over the success that they had with those lineups into Utah tomorrow as they take on the well rested Jazz who haven't played since Saturday.
The Jazz are coming off of a win against the T'Wolves in which the Jazz's frontcourt combination of Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson lit up the Wolves for a combined 44 points and 21 rebounds.
If the Raptors have any shot at continuing there winning streak here is what they will have to do In Utah:
1) Get off to a hot start: The Raps first quarter struggles have been well documented; they have lost 5 straight first quarters, and were lucky to get the win last night despite another sluggish start. The Raptors need to jump on the Jazz early, who should be a little slow to start given they haven't played in 4 days. If the Raptors hope to have any shot at winning this game they are going to need their starters to step up; their bench cannot keep digging them out of these deep holes early.
2) Protect the Paint: The Jazz have a great deep frontcourt of Milsap, Jefferson, Kanter and Favors that they take full advantage of on the offensive end of the floor. Utah is second in the league in points per game in the paint and thus stopping their interior attack will be central to slowing the Jazz offense. This is where Casey could potentially employ the zone defense successfully. The Jazz are not a great jump shooting team; they are just 27th in the league in three-point shooting and their offense is built around pounding the ball in the paint.
Get Bargnani the Ball: The Raptors flat out struggled offensively without their offensive anchor in the 6 games he missed previous to last night. Bargnani is the key to getting their offense going; they are going to need him early and they are going to need him often against the Jazz. Bargnani should have a matchup advantage against either Milsap or Jefferson, both of which are too large and likely too slow to stay with the agile Bargnani. At the very least, his ability to stretch the floor will bring the bigs away from the basket leaving the lane wide open for slashers like DeRozan and Johnson to cut to the bucket. If the Raps run their offense through Bargnani they should have some success early against the less agile Utah Jazz