If you missed the Raptors 99-91 loss in Phoenix on Thursday night, you don’t even need to check out the condensed game on League Pass. Just watch this:
Every Raptors fan feared this on some level. After a night of push and pull with the Warriors on Wednesday, the quick turnaround and time zone shift always had the potential to leave the Raptors’ flat-footed against the Suns.
In the grand scheme of the Raptors’ season to this point, a loss to a basement-dwelling team on a back-to-back in the midst of a grueling western road trip isn’t a really touchstone.
Patrick Patterson’s first-half knee injury however, underscored one of the big picture dilemmas facing this team. Patterson’s importance is glaringly obvious when he’s in the game. Toronto possesses two of the most deadly five-man units in the NBA, and it’s no mere coincidence that Patterson is present in both (as is Kyle Lowry). Patterson’s a backup on paper, but in reality he’s the third-most crucial player on the Raptors roster. Getting just nine minutes from Patterson against Phoenix exposed the Raptors still-shaky front court.
Pascal Siakam is essentially just a half-starter at this point. That much was proven when he couldn’t even get on the court to start the third despite Patterson being sidelined for the game. Patterson had opened his previous six third quarters with the rest of the starters, all but eliminating Siakam’s spot in the second-half rotation. The impetus for that recurring trend? A consistent run of sluggish starts with Siakam on the floor - a pattern that continued on Thursday. Patterson inherited a 10-4 deficit when he entered at the 6:26 mark of the first against the Suns.
Siakam still has moments that trigger salivation, particularly on defense. At one point in the fourth quarter, Toronto’s over-extended rookie stuck with the tiny and quick Tyler Ulis on the perimeter, backpedaled soundly when Ulis attacked the basket and calmly swatted away a layup attempt. The problem is, he augmented that stand-out play with twenty-something minutes of rookie greenery. He’s not sure-handed enough to lock down the defensive glass, still gets caught up in the speed of opposing NBA offenses, and as Dwane Casey pointed out earlier Thursday, opposing defenses still aren’t viewing him as guard-worthy threat on offense.
Next to Siakam for swaths of the second half was Lucas Nogueira, who had one of his most uninspiring performances of the season: 0 points, one rebound, a couple blocks and a pair of turnovers was all he could muster in 22 minutes of action. No dazzling lob dunks, and no indication that he’s ready to be a night-to-night defensive anchor just yet.
With Siakam and Nogueira providing so little, the final minutes total for Toronto’s other big man was a tad perplexing. Normally Dwane Casey’s sparing use of Jonas Valanciunas has been justified this season. Some match-ups against stretchy opponents have thrown him for a loop. But the game in Phoenix felt like one where Valanciunas could have (and should have) been more of a focal point.
Burly centres like Tyson Chandler and Alex Len are usually treated like a Christmas feast by Valanciunas. Few defenders in the league can bump Toronto’s seven-footer off of his spot, and the Suns don’t possess any such bruisers. Conversely, neither Chandler or Len are threats to drag Valanciunas away from the rim. That’s why the 19 minutes (less than both Siakam and Bebe) and 4 field goal attempts for Valanciunas both seem unnecessarily low.
When the offense is humming like the league-best machine it’s been this season, Valanciunas’ touches understandably take a back seat. But the gears were jammed against the Suns. Toronto shot just 7-of-27 from long range (just 2-of-19 before a late rally attempt) and nobody outside of DeMar DeRozan had any sort of offensive flow in the first half. Valanciunas’ brand of in-close, efficient offense might have given the Raptors a jump start had he been given more rope.
To counteract Patterson’s exit and some sub-par front court performances, Casey did trot out some smaller looks here and there. Terrence Ross opened the third quarter next to DeMarre Carroll at the four, and a lineup of Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Ross, Norman Powell and Siakam ended up being the most used five-man unit by Casey on the night. But with Carroll limited to 20 minutes (his graduated restriction in the second half of back-to-backs) and both Powell and Ross shooting an uncharacteristic combined line of 5-of-18 and 2-of-9 from three, the effectiveness of Casey’s nifty groupings was limited.
As it turns out, Patrick Patterson, the league’s eight-best player in terms of total plus-minus (+266), is critical to the Raptors no matter the size with which they wish to play. With two days off before a New Year’s Day match-up with the Lakers, the Raptors will be hoping that Patterson’s injury is less ominous than it sounded post-game:
Patterson said he's never had knee problems before but admitted the pain is a bit worrisome. Did not sound good.— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) December 30, 2016
A prolonged absence for Toronto’s do-everything-pretty-well big man would put the Raptors’ uncertain front court under some extreme stress to start the new year. For a team with aspirations as high as the Raptors, it’s the kind of rudimentary conundrum they can’t afford to face.
What did you think of tonight’s loss to the Suns?