Raptors look to finish West-coast trip on a high

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. (Ralph Freso/AP)

Life against the Western Conference’s top two teams was not kind to the Toronto Raptors.

After falling to the Portland Trail Blazers in overtime to put a bow on 2014, Toronto rang in the New Year with a 126-105 defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors on Friday, knocking them out of first place in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors have a chance to end a difficult six-game road trip with a .500 record if they can earn a win against the Phoenix Suns Sunday night. When these teams squared off on Nov. 24, Toronto coughed up a big fourth quarter lead, but held on to win 104-100.

Programming Alert: Watch the Raptors take on the Suns live on Sportsnet Ontario, Pacific and East at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT or listen on Sportsnet 590 The FAN.

Major Storyline 1: Hold the fort. According to reports, all-star DeMar DeRozan will return to the Raptors’ lineup on Thursday against the Charlotte Hornets. Toronto has done an admirable job without its starting shooting guard, compiling a record of 11-6. A win tonight at US Airways Center would cap a gruelling road trip on a positive note and make DeRozan’s impending return look even sweeter.

Major Storyline 2: Get to the free-throw line. The Suns allow opponents to shoot nearly 28 free throws per game, good for 29th in the NBA. This heavily contributes to Phoenix’s 28th ranked defence. The Raptors will need to make sure they stay aggressive throughout the game, as the opportunities will be there for them to earn some easy points from the foul line. On the contrary, the Suns boast the highest free-throw percentage in the league, so Toronto will aim to minimize their attempts.

Major Storyline 3: Run them off the perimeter. Friday night in Oakland, the Raptors allowed the Warriors to drain 12 three-pointers on 43 percent shooting from downtown. While the Suns do not have a player like Steph Curry in their lineup, they are equipped with a number of long-distance gunners. On the season, Phoenix is shooting 37.6 percent from beyond the arc, and 45 percent over the past three contests. If Gerald Green and company find a rhythm early, it could be a long night for the visitors.

Marquee Player to Watch, Toronto: Kyle Lowry. No Raptor deserves a break more than Lowry, who has had to match up with elite point guards in each of the past five games. The Philadelphia native won’t have it any easier tonight against the three-headed monster of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas in the Suns’ backcourt. Lowry is averaging better than 27 points and nearly seven assists per game so far on the road trip and the Raptors will need a similar performance from their leader tonight against a tough Suns squad.

Marquee Player to Watch, Phoenix: Eric Bledsoe. Starting alongside Goran Dragic, Bledsoe is flourishing in the Suns’ dual-point guard lineup. The former first-round draft pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder has averaged 16.6 points per game, while posting career-highs of 5.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds. Bledsoe is turnover prone, registering over three giveaways each night, but he somewhat balances that out by swiping 1.5 steals.

Role Player Who Will Make a Difference, Toronto: Lou Williams. Williams has been lacking the consistency he showed during the first month of the season, shooting below 50 percent in five of the last six contests (including a combined 7-for-24 over the past two). Against a talented Phoenix backcourt, Toronto will need its Sixth Man Award candidate to alleviate some of the pressure on Lowry.

Role Player Who Will Make a Difference, Phoenix: Alex Len. When these teams met in Toronto on Nov. 24, Jonas Valanciunas posted a career-high 27 points, victimizing undersized starting centre Miles Plumlee. Len has since been inserted into the starting lineup, providing Jeff Hornacek with a way to combat bigger bodies. In 10 starts this season, the Ukrainian is averaging seven points to go along with seven rebounds and better than two blocks per outing.

Season series vs. Suns: Raptors lead 1-0

Raptors Stats Leaders:
Points: Kyle Lowry (20.7)
Rebounds: Jonas Valanciunas (8.5)
Assists: Kyle Lowry (7.7)

Suns Stats Leaders:
Points: Goran Dragic (16.7)
Rebounds: Markieff Morris (5.8)
Assists: Eric Bledsoe (5.9)

Verdict: The end of this hellish six-game road swing is in sight. The Raptors do not play again until Jan. 8, so they can leave everything on the floor in Arizona. Toronto has not dropped three consecutive games in over a calendar year, and while it won’t be easy, that streak should remain intact tonight.