The Toronto Raptors entered tonight's game against the Phoenix Suns still looking to make a sustained statement. For Toronto to be considered an elite NBA team, to answer resoundingly the question of "are they for real?", the team will have to beat quality opponents.
One win against a good team does not a season make. But, three or four in a row, including tonight's 104-100 win against Phoenix? Well, now with an East-leading 12-2 record, the Raptors' statements are growing louder.
Despite the win, Phoenix made it interesting by putting Toronto's #WeTheFourth mantra to the test. In many ways, the Suns are the Raptors of the West. They seemed like a directionless team, one flush with cap space but bereft of quality "name" players. They had no identity. But last year, they congealed quickly into a fast-paced, bombs away 48-34 team. Their only problem? The Suns play in the Thunderdome Western Conference. They didn't make the playoffs last year, but make no mistake, it was a statement season. This is a good team.
Jonas Valanciunas would not be the first Raptor you'd predict to shine against the run-and-gun Suns. Still, for most of the first half, against an overmatched Alex Len and Miles Plumlee, Valanciunas had his way. He finished the game with a career-high 27 points (on 10-of-11 shooting) and 11 rebounds.
"I was just doing my job," Jonas said after the game. "I was rebounding the ball, trying to get open, setting good screens and that's my game." Valanciunas' game proved to be so effective that the Suns' only answer was to go small. They're fourth quarter rally - they outscored the Raps 34-23 in the fourth - was fueled by the dynamite Isaiah Thomas, the smallest player on both teams. He went for a quick 16 points (12 in the fourth quarter) on 6-of-10 shooting, and four 3s. The Raptors 15-point third quarter lead evaporated and the statement changed. The Raps needed to rally.
While it was the biggest player on the Raptors who helped build their lead, it was the smallest, Kyle Lowry, who helped keep it.
"It was huge," Coach Casey said of Lowry's late-game heroics. "That last play when he dove on the ball and just poked it away and caught them sleeping was huge in that situation." Lowry started the game slowly; he looked to get Valanciunas and his other teammates involved but had a quiet six points (on 3-of-8 shooting) at the half. As the game got closer, and the Suns started to heat up, it was Lowry finding his way into plays, drawing a big charge here, poking the ball away from Thomas there, winning the subsequent jump ball, and, of course, hitting shots. He finished the game with 16 points, to go with eight assists and seven rebounds. He made sure he was heard from when the game was on the line.
It was another win, and another statement. For Lowry though, you get the sense that there is still work to be done.
"We are not worried about our record; we are just taking it game-by-game and trying to get better."
What did you guys think of the game?