A floundering, lead-botching basement-dweller (featuring Aron Baynes at centre) faces a top-two-seeded, poised squad with some tight wins under their belt. If a year ago you’d told me that the former description would actually be of the Toronto Raptors, with the latter describing the Phoenix Suns, I probably would’ve laughed in your face (and maybe cursed your name). Heck, I’d have had an easier time believing that the Raptors would be playing their home games in Tampa due to a global pandemic. Okay, maybe not, but the point stands: these are strange times. The Raptors’ fanbase — one which had been so used to disappointment, despair, and, well, incompetence — has become a bit spoiled by the team’s near-decade-long period of sustained success. Or, at the very least, I have.
But here we are. The team will surely improve, but the Raptors have the second-worst record in the league right now at 1-5, and it’s been unsettling to watch. The vibes are not great. Every time Pascal Siakam gets the ball there’s a feeling of tension, like we’re holding our breath to see if he looks like an All-NBAer or like he did in the Bubble. The team’s defense, which was so stifling last year, now often looks lackadaisical and a step slow. Granted, there have been moments where Siakam’s looked impressive, like his block and coast-to-coast and-one sequence against the Boston Celtics on Monday. The team has played spurts of suffocating defense, too.
But what the Raptors have built over the last few years is a sense of reliability. They’ve been reliable, for example, in putting away the lesser teams — two early losses to a middling young New Orleans team have felt jarring for that reason. They’ve been reliable in holding on to big leads in the past — this season, they’ve been up ten or more points in every game, and have already blown more double-digit leads than they did all of last season. They just don’t look like the ultra-consistent team we’re used to watching.
There’s lots of blame to go around. Some players have looked off, some haven’t gelled yet with the new group, the second unit has been, uh, rough, and the team has undeniably downgraded at centre (no offense to Baynes). And let’s not gloss over the fact that the Raptors are essentially playing an entire season on the road.
But these are the circumstances of the season, and the Raptors aren’t making excuses for themselves. They need to get back on track with a win — but in their way stands a 5-2 Phoenix Suns team, led by All-Stars Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Here’s what you need to know for tonight’s game.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet, 9:00 PM ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
Phoenix – Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton
Toronto – Patrick McCaw (out — knee)
Phoenix – Jalen Smith (questionable — ankle sprain)
Make the Easy Ones Count
When the Raptors’ threes were falling during the first quarter against the Celtics on Monday, things seemed to be looking up. But once they stopped making seemingly every shot, their lapses on offense were once again exposed — one of these flaws was the team’s inability to capitalize on easy chances for points. The Raptors were finally getting to the free throw line more often, but went just 29-for-38, including numerous 0-for-2 trips. They need to continue being aggressive and drawing contact, but they also need to make their trips to the line count.
More egregious than the 76 percent free throw shooting, however, were the missed shots in the paint (and no, I’m not referring to VanVleet). Siakam’s finishing at the rim hasn’t been great this season, and Baynes couldn’t get anything to go from the dunker spot, finishing 0-for-5. Baynes is now 10-for-18 on field goals at the rim this season, according to Basketball Reference — too low a percentage for someone his size. Making threes is important, but the Raptors need to capitalize on their free throws and inside looks to minimize offensive droughts when the outside shots aren’t falling.
Poise Down the Stretch
On one side are the Raptors, who’ve blown almost every lead they’ve had this season. The Raptors haven’t really looked good down the stretch of any game this season, except for the few fourth-quarter minutes when they almost came back against the Pelicans (without Siakam). On the other side is Chris Paul, one of the NBA’s best players in the clutch, as we saw when he hit the game-winning shot against the Nuggets last week. Not a great matchup.
If tonight’s game comes down to a close finish (read: if the Raptors can avoid getting blown out), they need to muster up more offense than failed post-ups and unconvincing threes. Matt Thomas seems to be in Nick Nurse’s doghouse, so his floor-stretching ability probably won’t be utilized in late-game situations, and the spacing won’t be ideal. Siakam, who’ll likely be guarded by Crowder or Bridges, will have to trust his handle and attack the paint to create offense.
Clean the Glass
The Raptors need to keep Phoenix off the offensive boards. As Aaron Rose writes for Sports Illustrated, almost one-third of the Raptors’ defensive stops end in an offensive rebound. This gives their opponents lots of opportunities for second chance points, and reduces Toronto’s opportunity to create much-needed transition offense — giving up an offensive board after a long possession is also just demoralizing for a defense.
This creates a tough predicament for Nick Nurse, as Boucher provides an offensive spark and good offensive rebounding, but gets killed on defensive boards. Meanwhile, Baynes is a solid rebounder but has added little on offense. With the Raptors going up against the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Deandre Ayton, Nurse will likely go with the bigger Baynes and Len at the five while Ayton’s on the floor. Whichever lineup they go with, the Raptors have to box out and minimize opposing second chance points — otherwise, more defensive stops will go unrewarded.