Raptors’ narrow escape against Suns leaves more questions than answers

Pascal Siakam scored 10 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in leading the Toronto Raptors to the victory over the Phoenix Suns.

TORONTO — As far as soft landings go, you can’t do much better than the Phoenix Suns. Entrenched in a competitive battle for the No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s draft, Phoenix has really been giving it their all through the season’s first half, already boasting three separate losing streaks of six games or longer. Only three of the team’s 10 most-used players are above the age of 23. Thursday, the Suns gave extended minutes to De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo, and Richaun Holmes, ordered here by likelihood of being confused for a randomly generated NBA 2K create-a-player.

No matter that the Suns spent Tuesday night in Toronto, patiently awaiting Wednesday’s game, while the Toronto Raptors were in Boston, waging an emotionally-draining test of wills with a reeling-yet-motivated Celtics outfit that ultimately concluded in dispiriting defeat. If you have to play less than 24 hours following a game like that, it might as well be against Phoenix.

And yet, as they are wont to do, the Raptors made it so much harder than it had to be. It was still a hard-fought, bounce-back victory, 111-109, in the end. But it was far from as effortless as it should have been. Toronto was up a dozen after the first. But a combination of Phoenix’s youthful exuberance and Toronto’s dreadful three-point shooting allowed the Suns to hang around, and even take a one-point lead into the game’s final quarter.

Surely, that’s when Toronto’s experience and all-around superior talent should have taken over. But there the two teams were, going back and forth in the dying minutes until they were deadlocked at 109 with 13 seconds remaining. That’s when Raptors head coach Nick Nurse drew up an isolation play for Pascal Siakam, who charged straight into the paint and rolled a left-handed — left-handed! — bucket in over two Suns defenders.

“I just thought he could beat somebody off the dribble,” Nurse said. “Ended up the right decision.”

It was a fittingly unexpected play to end an unexpectedly competitive game full of unexpected events. To wit, C.J. Miles received his first extended, non-garbage-time run in 9 games. Patrick McCaw, recently signed after a complicated divorce from the defending NBA champions, made his Raptors debut. In the absence of Kawhi Leonard, resting on the latter half of the back-to-back, Siakam assumed Toronto’s do-a-little-bit-of-everything role. Chris Boucher played meaningful fourth-quarter minutes.

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How’d it all go? Miles made the most of his opportunity, playing impactfully at both ends of the floor and making 5-of-7 shots. McCaw looked a lot like a guy making his fourth appearance of the season, exiting after his first six minutes as a Raptor with a minus-11 beside his name. Siakam was quietly exceptional even before the game-winner, earning his 10th double-double of the season while making good decisions practically every time the ball touched his hands. And Boucher’s presence was certainly felt, as he went to work on last year’s No. 1 pick, Deandre Ayton, and was the focal point of a seven-point possession (not a typo) in the fourth.

“It was awesome, wasn’t it?” Nurse said of Miles’s game in particular. “That was real unexpected, right? It was something we were hoping for. We knew we needed to use him tonight being short a few guys. And it was good. I think he gave us a jolt. I think he gave us some spirit. I think everybody was happy over there on the bench to see him do it. I think the fans were happy to see him do it. And it was nice to have him hit some rhythm ones and then make a couple nice drives, as well.”

Games like these won’t necessarily go down in history, but are important none the less for a team rife with questions, and a coaching staff equipped with only 35 regular season games remaining in which to answer them.

The uncertainty begins with Toronto’s second unit because it’s easily the most confounding problem the Raptors currently face. It just doesn’t add up on paper. It’s widely agreed that one of Toronto’s greatest strengths is its depth. And when you’re bringing capable floor-runners like Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet off the bench, pairing them with versatile, athletic wings like OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, and solidifying things down low with some combination of Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas (when healthy), and Greg Monroe, it’s hard to see where things could go wrong.

But they have. Toronto’s bench has let the team down in some very critical moments this season, the most recent coming during a disastrous second quarter Wednesday in Boston. The injured Valanciunas rejoining the Raptors sometime in the coming weeks will surely help, as Nurse has lost the ability to deploy his two primary centres based on matchups, while Monroe’s deficiencies have been exposed as his minutes have increased.

But, despite standout performances here and there, neither Wright nor Anunoby have looked like themselves this season, and returning them to consistent form would be much more impactful. Wright, to his credit, had a strong game against the Suns, contributing a quietly efficient 10 points and five assists.

VanVleet’s play off the bench has been spotty at times, as well, although he’s been running with the starters more often than not over the last six weeks as the Raptors have battled injuries. And then, somewhere out in the wilderness, there’s Miles, who came into Thursday’s game having made only 17 of his last 65 attempts, playing his way completely out of Nurse’s rotations in the process. Like Wright, VanVleet and Miles were both strong against the Suns. But the final three words on that sentence likely had an impact on the first eight.

Of course, Toronto’s bench was a source of energy and productivity night in and night out last season, but the only player consistently living up to that standard so far this year is Norman Powell, who can’t be praised enough for how well he’s played since returning from injury. Meanwhile, Nurse has struggled to find the right rotations for the group, sometimes staggering Lowry and Leonard to give the unit a boost, and at others turning to net-rating monster Danny Green, who couldn’t get the reserves going against the Celtics on Wednesday.

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So, that’s a big one. Another is the Raptors’ perimeter shooting, which was spotty again on Thursday (the Raptors hit 7-of-28 three’s against the Suns) and is going to need to improve sometime between now and April. If it doesn’t, what do you think teams are going to do against Toronto in the playoffs? They’re going to crowd the paint, protect the rim, and close out on Raptors shooters, daring the NBA’s seventh-worst three-point shooting team to beat them from distance.

And, so far, it hasn’t taken the tightest of coverages to limit the Raptors beyond the arc. While Toronto came into Thursday’s game hitting 38.4 per cent of three-pointers defined as wide open by NBA.com (shot with the closest defender six-plus feet away), that number declined rapidly to 31.2 per cent with a defender within 4-6 feet, and 22.4 per cent at 2-4 feet. Those latter two rates were among the five worst in the league.

Toronto’s crunch time offence will need to be addressed before long, as well. This was no more evident than in Boston on Wednesday when Toronto scored only four points in the game’s final four minutes. It was a cacophony of botched plays, poorly-selected shots, and, in the game’s most critical moments, downright uninspired basketball, as the Raptors put the ball in Leonard’s hands, cleared out, and waited for him to do something.

Leonard’s a ridiculous talent, and there will be nights when he’s good enough to pull the Raptors to victories in spite of that unimaginative approach. But it’s no way to have long-term success. And on Wednesday, there were no excuses. The Raptors had their best lineup on the floor, in the thick of a competitive, playoff-like game. They just didn’t execute. They barely moved. At this point in the season, it shouldn’t be happening.

“We made some big plays. I don’t know how much better it was,” VanVleet said, asked to compared Toronto’s late-game execution against the Suns to its effort the night prior in Boston. “We moved the ball well late. Kyle made some great plays, Serge was able to finish a couple of buckets. So, the offence was a little better down the stretch and that’s all you can ask is to try to learn from your mistakes.”

The Raptors could attempt to solve many of these problems with one fell swoop at the trade deadline, acquiring a dependable, defensive-minded shooter to bolster the second unit, supply the three-point marksmanship the Raptors have been missing from Miles, and provide another late-game scoring option when needed. Or, rotation players like Wright, Anunoby, VanVleet, and Miles could begin to play to their abilities with more consistency, improving the team from within. A mixture of both might be the best approach.

So, even though it was only the latter half of a mid-season, back-to-back against one of NBA’s worst outfits, Thursday’s game against the Suns was not devoid of meaning. For the Raptors, as win-now as any team in the league, none of their remaining games will be. Is this where Miles turns around his troubled season? Can Wright and VanVleet bring this level of play more consistently? Will Siakam’s breakout season keep motoring along? Just add them to the pile of questions.

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