The Toronto Raptors may have tested the limits of basketball apathy on this four-game road trip, but no matter. They’ve finished it with a 3-1 record, thanks to a 115-109 win over the lowly Phoenix Suns — a game that had all the modest highs and frustrating lows of the three games preceding.
The Suns were without their scoring leader Devin Booker coming into tonight. That, coupled with the fact that Toronto was coming off an unnecessary loss in Los Angeles, seemed to line up for an easy win.
That never materialized Wednesday, but thanks to three starters, the win came about. DeMar DeRozan led all scorers with 37 points, obliterating his matchup with rookie Josh Jackson, as he schooled him to earn 15 free throws while shooting 50% from the field.
The Raptors’ frontcourt showed out again too. Jonas Valanciunas followed up his best game of the season in Los Angeles with another solid offensive outing — 20 points (7-for-12 and, yes, one three-pointer) and 11 rebounds. Next to him, Serge Ibaka responded to a poor night on the boards with 13, adding 21 points for a double-double of his own.
With Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby adding +12 marks, statistics told the story of the game: the Raptors starters took care of business, while the bench struggled mightily. Toronto’s six second unit players combined for just 16 points, countered to 53 from the Suns bench — 32 of those coming from a fiery Troy Daniels. It was the third straight poor showing for a retooled Toronto bench.
The bench differences allowed the Suns to hang around for long stretches of the game, as a strong Raptors start was again mitigated by a complete lack of offense from their bench. Most frustrating of those players was Norman Powell, who appears lost on the basketball court during this road trip.
Powell was 0-for-6 with two turnovers tonight, again driving to the basket without a plan, tossing up layups at impossible angles. He was a -14 in ten minutes, and after initially settling into a role as bench creator, he appears unable to do what the bench needs from him. Fred VanVleet is too small to be an every-possession downhill player — and teams are wiser to defending his game now — and Powell will need to make layups (or even drive to pass).
Powell’s struggles showed most in the second quarter, when he missed three layups and fouled a three-point shooter to allow a Suns run, narrowing the Raptors lead to 43-42. A pair of VanVleet turnovers made matters worse, but Dwane Casey responded well — staggering in minutes for DeMar DeRozan to grab some attention on the offensive end. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to keep a talent-dry Suns team at bay.
The second half was similar, as the Raptors gained a lead with the starters, and gave it up toward the end of the third quarter. Down the stretch in the fourth quarter, the team struggled to control penetration from Daniels and T.J. Warren (Lowry had an unimpressive night on defense) but were able to ride big minutes from their starters to hold on to the win. Ibaka, Lowry, and DeRozan all played over 34 minutes; Valanciunas played 30, nearing his season-high from the season opener vs. Chicago.
So, now the Raptors can return home. Nothing about this road trip inspired confidence. The Memphis game had a nice finish, but the Kings and Suns wins were mediocre, and the Clippers loss was obviously a bummer. Maybe, it’s just part of a very long NBA season, and a lack of motivation in a soft part of the schedule. In the end, it doesn’t have to be pretty, as an 18-8 record speaks for itself.
The Raptors will try to add to that on Friday, as they welcome DeMarre Carroll and the Brooklyn Nets to Air Canada Centre.