The Toronto Raptors will return home from their four-game western (again) road swing 3-1 after a 115-109 win over the Phoenix Suns that was in doubt right up until the final minute. Given their poor effort against the struggling Los Angeles Clippers on Monday they can’t be too proud of themselves on the plane home, but they are 18-8 and just two games behind Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics in the loss column so there’s a lot to be positive about too.
Bigs coming up, well, you know
It could be the competition, it could be the matchups, it could be that the Raptors bigs have enjoyed some Vitamin D on the road in California and Arizona, but Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka have been playing some of their best basketball lately. Against the Suns they played together – even in the fourth quarter! – just to add to the overall weirdness. The lines: Ibaka was 8-of-11 from the floor with 13 rebounds, a block and a perfect 3-for-3 from deep for 21 points in one of his most complete games as a Raptor, while Valanciunas was 7-of-12 with 11 rebounds and – yes – a triple in his only attempt for 20 points, a worthy follow up to his 23-and-15 showing against the Clippers.
But it wasn’t just the numbers, it was the presence. The Raptors went big and played big – leading the Suns in rebounding, points in the paint and second-chance points. Valanciunas is looking as bouncy as he has since pre-season. He stole a page from Jakob Poeltl’s book with some nimble feet on a really nice middle pick-and-roll he ran with Lowry in the third quarter and crashed the glass hard on a crucial possession in the final minute after setting the screen that forced Suns centre Greg Monroe to leave him and guard DeMar DeRozan on the perimeter. He was fouled and made a free throw to make it a two-possession game.
Ibaka looks like a different player of late. Lots of energy, hustle plays and beautiful lift on his jumpers. Not sure if playing both of them down the stretch is a long-term strategy for success, but each of them earned those minutes Wednesday night.
When Norm Powell was announced as the recipient of a four-year, $42-million contract extension earlier this year (it kicks in for the 2018-19 season) so began his transition from second-round found money to: “Is this guy going to be able to live up to that deal?”
Over his first three seasons in Toronto, Powell’s minutes and role were incredibly inconsistent: from spot starter, to big-minutes rotation player, to forgotten man, deep on the bench. The hope was that with a regular role for the first time in his career – as a starter before his injury; now as a focal part of the second unit – that consistent performance would follow. Instead it’s been the opposite.
A couple of emerging trends were on display against the Suns. One is that Powell’s bouts of famine can come on suddenly and lasted a long time. The other is that his solution is generally to force more attacks on the rim, attacks that don’t vary in purpose. As Jack Armstrong said on the broadcast, he drives almost exclusively to score and he’s easy to time for shot-blockers. He was 0-of-6 with two turnovers and three fouls in 10 minutes and looked like he was thinking in slow motion the whole time. He’s 2-of-15 from the floor over his past three games with five turnovers. I’m sure Powell will snap out of it, but it’s tough to watch at times.
Third quarter? No problem
Remember when the Raptors couldn’t function in the third quarters? Remember when they blew double-digit leads in consecutive games New York and Indiana? Yeah. Never mind. Those days are gone, it would seem.
In five games prior to Wednesday’s game against the Suns the Raptors were boasting an offensive rating of 118.1 in the first 12 minutes after halftime, good for third in the NBA and a net rating of 12.4, good for fifth. And that was before DeRozan went off for 18 of his game-high 37 points in the third against Phoenix, easily working his way around a bevy of Suns young defenders and giving rookie Josh Jackson nightmares, I’m sure.
DeRozan was sharp enough that he was even able to lift some of the burden of the suddenly beleaguered second unit as he blunted a 5-0 mini Suns run after the bench unit began filtering in with a couple of jumpers of its own. While DeRozan’s playoff production remains a gap on his resume, watching him carve an outclassed gathering of young defenders on a Wednesday night in December is good entertainment.
Schedule about to get friendly
The Raptors schedule has been pretty bananas, although some of it has been their own doing. They held their training camp in Victoria and started their pre-season with a trip to Hawaii, which seemed a bit ambitious given what the regular season held in story for them.
They had that 12-day, six-game West Coast road trip and have just wrapped up their second trip out west and it’s not even Christmas. They have already played all but three Western Conference teams on the road. No team has played fewer than the meagre 10 home games the Raptors have so far – for comparison, Boston has played 15 home games and Cleveland 13. But things are beginning to bend their way.
They don’t have to venture any further west than the Central Time Zone for the rest of the season, for example, and they have 56 games left but only 25 road games. They only have three road games left against a Western Conference team and they don’t play one after their Jan. 20 matchup against Minnesota.
Raptors lucky to avoid Booker
Working in their favour, however, has been the Raptors’ incredible luck in facing other teams without their best players, as the Suns were without Devin Booker, who strained his groin playing against the Raptors in Toronto last week. The Suns are now 0-4 without Booker, but the Raptors’ record against teams playing without their marquee talent is mixed.
They lost against San Antonio sans Kawhi Leonard, Boston without Kyrie Irving, split two games against the John Wall-less Washington Wizards and won against the Charlotte Hornets without Kemba Walker but lost to the Clippers without Blake Griffin.