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Five thoughts on last night: Phoenix Suns 104, Raptors 100

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With a new face in the starting lineup, the Raptors looked pretty decent — but an old problem kept them from beating the Suns.

Five thoughts recap: Phoenix Suns 104, Toronto Raptors 104

I have to admit, for the first time in a while I was pretty excited to watch the game last night! I was curious to see how the new-look Toronto Raptors would fare together, and the Phoenix Suns seemed to be a potent opponent against whom to test their mettle.

And you know what, the game itself lived up to my expectations! Both teams shot the ball pretty well, the game was close throughout, and even though the Raptors lost, Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood both got extended minutes to start building chemistry with their new teammates.

Of course, the game was also incredibly frustrating as a Raptors fan, since the team’s inability to rebound the basketball and finish otherwise-solid defensive possessions continues to haunt them.

In fact, let’s start there!

1. Need That Big

If anything showcased the Raptors’ glaring need for a centre, it was playing against DeAndre Ayton last night. Ayton is a solid young player, probably underwhelming for a former #1 overall pick, but he offered up the full gamut of things you need from a big man: the ability to grab the ball above the rim and finish (having Chris Paul to set you up obviously helps with this); rebounding, often simply by being bigger than everyone else; and rim protection, including simply deterring drivers with his size.

In other words, all of the things this Raptors team is lacking. And this isn’t just me picking on Aron Baynes, who was awful again last night; the results speak for themselves.

The team’s inability address the issue remains the rare black mark on Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster’s resumes. They obviously both knew early on that their offseason acquisitions of Aron Baynes and Alex Len weren’t working out, but didn’t address it (other than inexplicably waiving Len) — and now the trade deadline has passed. The buyout market is now the only route left to fix the problem, but that’s never been an avenue of success for Toronto.

I’ll let the wonderful Louis Zatzman sum it up:

2. The New Guys

It’s always fun to see new players join your team (even when they’re replacing a beloved veteran), but it’s also always a good idea to keep your expectations low. Gary Trent Jr.’s first shot looked smooth, his next two looked a bit awkward, but he settled down flashed a nice spin-into-a-15-footer in the third quarter. He finished with eight points on 11 shots, and a Norman Powell-esque zero rebounds and zero assists.

Rodney Hood scored his only bucket on a nice fadeaway over Chris Paul, but I was impressed with his activity on both ends. I only noticed one spot where he made a poor defensive read in the first quarter, and he moved the ball well on offense. Faint praise? Sure, but the Raptors have barely had that from their bench all year, so it’s nice to see, right?

All told both of these guys should fit in well. Trent won’t quite replace all of Powell’s scoring, but OG Anunoby is ready to take on more, and if Pascal Siakam is getting back into form, then the starting group should remain potent. And again, just being competent should keep Hood in the bench rotation.

3. Flynn in the Rotation

Malachi Flynn played his best stretch of ball of the season last night, a second quarter run where he nailed to jumpers,

Two nice looking shots, including a three-pointer; flashed a nice hesitation dribble to get to the rim (although he couldn’t finish), and some excellent defense on the other end.

It’s really nice to see. I’ve been a little bit down on Flynn, simply because he hasn’t shown us much, but I wonder if he’s now finally getting comfortable and gaining confidence. His role in the rotation seems solidified, and with DeAndre Bembry and Paul Watson held out in the health and safety protocols, he should continue to get minutes. He’s also no longer the “new guy,” with Hood and Trent on the team, which — even though those guys are veterans, Hood especially — can help a person feel more comfortable.

Either way, I hope Flynn’s Q2 play was a harbinger of more to come.

4. D to O to Shooter’s Roll

As much fun as it was to see the new guys play, nothing is more of a joy than seeing Kyle Lowry still in a Raptors uniform. More on the non-trade below, but first, a fun-as-hell highlight!

Chris Boucher played an oddly-low 11 minutes last night, but he did pick up two blocks in those minutes, including one on a Langston Galloway back cut.

That led to a classic Lowry PU3IT, one that needed to touch every part of the rim before falling through:

My favourite part of last year’s Raptors was how the team turned defense into offense. We haven’t seen nearly enough of that this year, so it was nice to see it again last night for one play.

5. Deadline Dance

I don’t think it’s any secret that I was in the “don’t trade Kyle Lowry” camp, so of course I’m happy he’s still with the team. I obviously understand the “business” side of the equation, and that desire to “get something” for Lowry before he leaves in free agency. But the fact is that Lowry has significant on- and off-the-court value for the Raptors, and he seemed fully willing to stick so Masai Ujiri had all the leverage here. And if the offers didn’t come through to meet that value? Ujiri and Webster absolutely did the right thing in keeping Lowry.

I also push back against the “he’s going to walk for nothing” argument. That ignores the past, for one thing (the Raptors got a title and seven straight playoff runs, which is not nothing); ignores the reality that a shitty trade can actually have worse value than letting Lowry’s contract come off the books (if the Raptors got back a middling player who’s an RFA, they may have felt compelled to sign him, and thus become stuck with a dead weight contract); and ignores the fact that the Raptors can still re-sign Lowry this summer, or even sign-and-trade him.

Another side of this is the perception side. Ujiri has worked tirelessly to transform the image of the Raptors organization. Part of that is being a team that makes only shrewd trades, doesn’t act out of desperation, and takes care of its players. If Lowry really wanted to leave, I’m 100 percent certain they would have moved him. If he was OK with staying, then the avoiding the bad PR of making a bad trade has value too.

Putting all that aside, though… I’m just thrilled the GROAT is a still a Raptor.

As for Norman Powell, that one does sting. But again, I get it from the business side. Trent is younger and will be far more affordable this summer; the Raptors’ cap situation made it difficult to see any way they could have kept Powell on the sort of contract he’s gonna want (and deserves). (And with Powell gone, it makes re-signing Lowry seem somewhat more likely.)

It is kind of heartbreaking though, to think back to that title team; the Raptors won their title less than two years ago, and of the eight players who contributed to that playoff run, five of them are now gone.

Professional sports is a cold business.

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It’s also a weird business — only three days after swapping players, the Raptors and the Portland Trail Blazers will play on Sunday! It’s gonna to be really odd seeing Powell play against the Raptors so soon after trading him, but Blazers-Raptors games are typically good ones, so it should be fun to watch.