Finding an explanation for today's Raptors loss to the Phoenix Suns doesn't require an exhaustive search through the score sheet, or any deep analysis of game tape. No, the final score of 121-113, in favour of the Suns, does a sufficient job in summing up this contest. The Suns have put up 105.2 points per game this season, ranking them sixth in the NBA, and although the Raps have their share of offensive weapons, this isn't a team that you want to enter into a shooting match against. For a Toronto team who's hung their hat on a defense first style of play, they seemed to give into their opponents strengths on this occasion.
The first quarter resembled an offensive clinic, as the two teams combined for 72 points in the opening frame. Leading the way for the Dinos were their two young starters, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. The two played the entirety of the first quarter and combined for 24 of the Raptors 35 points.
It seems like a recurring storyline for Valanciunas, to get involved in the offense early and fade as the game wears on, and this game was no different. The Raptors second year center had 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting in his first 12 minutes and finished with 15 points on the night. Valanciunas' matchup against the weaker Miles Plumlee was a favourable one but he didn't solely rely on out-muscling Plumlee to score. We got a glimpse of his "jump" shot from midrange and, subsequently, he was able to bait his defender with a pump fake and drive to the rim for an and-one finish. For a 21 year old center to show that kind of versatility should be encouraging to Raptors fans, even if the consistency isn't quite there yet on a night to night basis.
Offensive balance makes any team much tougher to guard. For the Raptors, JV's success in the post was complemented by Terrence Ross' wing play. Ross has been shooting the deep ball well of late and that form was on display tonight as he hit all three of his attempts from beyond the arc. Ross finished with an efficient 22 points on 53.8% shooting.
As impressive as the Raptors offense was to start the game, the Suns were not to be outplayed at their own game. Led by Gerald Green and Goran Dragic, two players having breakout years, Phoenix posted 37 points of their own thanks to 63.6% shooting from the field, including 7 of 9 from three-point range. Only two points separated the teams heading into the second quarter but tempo definitely suited the fast-paced Suns.
As should be expected, both teams cooled off in the second quarter and saw their shooting percentages regress towards more realistic levels. Heading into the half, the lead remained unchanged from the previous intermission, a two point difference in favour of the Suns.
Apparently all these players needed was a bit of a rest after the scoring frenzy that was the first quarter. Coming out of the break the Suns looked determined to pull away. At one point they managed to stretch their lead to 14 points and the energy of the crowd in attendance seemed to slip. Luckily for the fans at the ACC, the Raptors have a point guard on their roster. His name is Kyle Lowry, and he's got enough determination of his own to seemingly match any team in the league. We've seen it a number of times this season; the Raptors fall behind and at some point (thanks to the history of our franchise) we start looking towards the next game, but then Lowry awakes. Tonight was a prime example of the Lowry-phenomenon, that is, when the Raps need it most he steps his game up ten-fold. Of his game-high 28 points, 19 of them came in third quarter but is was so much more than just scoring. He also added 4 of his 13 total assists in the quarter and hauled in two rebounds, one of which on the offensive glass.
Unfortunately, no other Raptor looked to feed off of Lowry's energy and the defense failed to find an answer for the Suns "big names". Gerald Green finished with 28 points, Dragic chipped in with 19, and as a team the Suns shot over 50% from the field and nearly managed 50% from three. I can only imagine the frustration Dwane Casey will have watching the game tape over for defensive corrections.
The Raptors couldn't manage to grab the lead at any point in the fourth quarter. There was reason for some optimism up until the final minute, but for the most part, the Suns seemed destined to hold on for the win. To the Raptors credit, it's a loss against a hungry Western Conference team fighting for a playoff spot. Yes, despite a record similar to Toronto's, Phoenix sits in 9th place in the West, and would be watching the playoffs from home if the regular season ended today. Gotta love the East Coast.
Next up, the Raptors travel to Atlanta on Tuesday night for the first game of a back-to-back on the road. Both will be important games for Toronto if they hope to hold on to their 3rd place record. Chicago and Brooklyn are playing their best ball of the season and are slowly closing the gap in the standings.