The Phoenix Suns have set a very specific course. They were on it anyway, but when they traded for Kevin Durant at the trade deadline last season and then for Bradley Beal in the off-season they burned the boats behind them.
The Suns are planning to win an NBA championship this year or next and whatever happens after that? They’ll figure it out later, after the championship parade has been tidied up, the luxury tax bills are paid, and all their trade partners get to enjoy years of Suns draft picks.
The Raptors’ path? Inscrutable. No one knows what this team is doing or where it’s heading. Championship or bust? No. The bets around here are all hedged. The option to pivot is always present. But almost every time, the Raptors seem to make it clear that the best – and maybe only — solution would be to break it all up and start over, they serve notice that there are the bones of a good team here.
How much meat is on them and if the body parts are all attached the right way? Different questions. But as they showed in a remarkable 112-105 win over Durant, Devin Booker, and the visiting Suns that was as thorough as it was surprising, giving up on the core of this group too soon could come back to haunt them.
The Suns arrived in Toronto with two days’ rest, a seven-game win streak, and in Booker and Durant, a pair of offensive supernovas who could each end up in the MVP conversation at season’s end. If Beal – limited to three games this year due a back problem – can get healthy, the Suns promise to be an offensive juggernaut. Meanwhile the Raptors offence is mostly clunky, and they were coming into the game on the second night of a back-to-back with no rest, no superstars and coming off two discouraging losses.
But for one night the Raptors were better.
“This is a group of people, they don’t quit,” said Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. “They want to win, they want to represent our team, they want to represent the city of Toronto and whole Canada. Those guys take a lot of pride in what they do.
“Every time we play at home, there is extra energy that those guys feel in front of our crowd and it’s really fun to coach this team.”
It’s surely fun to coach OG Anunoby who was more than anyone he had to cover – Booker for most of the first half, Durant for most of the second – could handle. His combination of size, quickness, strength, and smarts won the day against two of the very best scorers on the planet. Booker finished with eight points on 2-of-12 shooting including a deep three that would have tied the game in the final minutes. He was hampered by a rolled ankle he suffered early in the third quarter, but Anunoby had made his night miserable well before that.
Later, Anunoby switched onto Durant and — with contributions from Barnes and Precious Achiuwa — helped hold the four-time scoring champion to 11-of-30 shooting on his way to a 30-point night that in no way reflected the kind of ruthless efficiency Durant has been playing with all season. Durant scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, but he had to work for them, including when Anunoby forced Durant to come up short on a fading turnaround in the lane with 1:48 to play that would have cut the Raptors’ lead to three after Anunoby had pushed it to five with a corner three on the previous possession.
Anunoby finished with 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting, but his defensive contributions loomed much larger. He was All-Defensive second team last season, and he’s making a convincing argument he should be first team this time around.
“I hope [people are noticing],” said Anunoby. “I think I get better every year, so I hope people notice.
The defence was a team effort and offensively the Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam’s 22 points and Scottie Barnes, who scored 12 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter.
“I got that dog in me,” said Barnes, when asked to explain his penchant for strong fourth quarters. “I get real energized. I just found the rhythm today, just had it going. Found something and just kept sticking with it, being aggressive. It was working.”
The win improved the Raptors record to 9-10 as the Suns fell to 11-7. Toronto shot 45.2 per cent from the floor and shot 10-of-27 from the three-point line. They were 18-of-21 from the free throw line – an improvement for them – and committed just 10 turnovers. The Suns shot 40.4 per cent from the floor and were 7-of-26 from three, far below the standards of the NBA’s fourth-rated offence.
Dennis Schroder finished with eight points and 12 assists without a turnover. His shot clock-beating lay-up with 24.4 seconds left that put the Raptors up by five effectively sealed the game.
The Suns will live to fight another day. Their mission is so clear that they can roll into a regular-season game with the Raptors like they did Wednesday and already be planning for June.
“My experience in championship runs — and what we were able to do in LA — is we used the regular season to build our tool chest for the playoffs,” said Suns head coach Frank Vogel, who won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020. “… You’re going to need to have all these weapons come playoff time … you want to win every night and you have to win every night, that’s what’s at stake, but building that tool chest as you’re preparing for playoff time is something that’s probably even more important.”
By that measure, the Suns were in a no-lose situation when they met the Raptors. Come out on top and they extend the seven-game winning streak they arrived with to eight games, tied with Orlando for longest in the league.
Lose? Well, it’s a learning experience.
But the Suns couldn’t lose, could they? Durant was ready to go after missing a couple of games with a sore foot, so he was bringing his absurd -even-for-him stat line of 31.4 points on 53.3 per cent shooting, including 52.2 per cent from three. And he might only be the Suns second-best player, given Booker came in averaging 29.4 points and 8.9 assists in his first season playing point guard.
As well, the Raptors were playing their third game in four nights and on the second night of a back-to-back having arrived back from Brooklyn at 4 a.m. ET Wednesday morning after their chartered plane had a mechanical issue.
And no, the Raptors have not chosen a path. Every regular season game is life or death as they try to squeeze into the play-in tournament, or at least until the trade deadline when they might pivot hard to rebuilding making everything at the moment meaningless.
The Raptors — coming off two very iffy road performances in a pair of losses – couldn’t win, could they?
“It’s the beauty of the league. It’s the challenge that’s ahead of us. We cannot control what we cannot control,” said Rajakovic. “We came in late last night. Hopefully, we had enough time to get quality sleep and get ready here. We’ve got to put our minds and hearts wherever they need to be. And that’s to play great basketball and to bounce back.”
The Raptors showed their intentions early. Setting the tone was Anunoby who is building his all-defence resume one superstar shutdown at a time. Anunoby smothered Booker from the jump. Booker missed all four of his shot attempts in the first quarter and then three more in the second. Anunoby didn’t cover him as much as he swallowed up the gifted Suns guard. The Raptors star held Booker to 1-of-8 shooting and recorded two steals and a block in his 18 first-half minutes. He effectively erased one of the Suns’ superstars.
Durant’s problems were more self-imposed. He looked rusty playing for the first time in eight days. He was 4-of-10 from the floor – and while some credit should go to Scottie Barnes who was active on Durant defensively, it seemed more like Durant was missing shots he’d otherwise normally make.
“I don’t feel like I’m ever out of rhythm,” he said later. “I just missed shots. I just think the lid was on the basket tonight. I feel like we got good looks, we just didn’t finish.”
Meanwhile, the Raptors were firing on all cylinders. After Toronto shot just 40.5 per cent from the floor in losses to Cleveland and Brooklyn, the Raptors put up 60 points in the first half as they enjoyed a seven-point lead heading into the third quarter.
“It was important [to have a good start]” said Siakam. “… There’s just no excuse. We got here, we got some sleep. You come into the game, I thought we just wanted to have a good start. I thought we did.”
Siakam had nine points in the first quarter, scoring on a variety of tough finishes at the rim as the Raptors led 27-20 after 12 minutes. For the first half, Toronto counted 16 assists on 23 field goals, nine of the helpers from Schroder, who either had the Raptors organized in transition with his vision and speed, or found connections with the Raptors bigs, most memorably on a gorgeous alley-oop pass to Precious Achiuwa early in the second quarter.
It was one of a number of highlights: An Anunoby block on Booker, leading to a perfectly executed Schroder fastbreak and Siakam finish comes to mind; a hustle sequence in the third quarter that featured two separate loose ball battles on the floor that ended up with a Barnes lay-up when the Raptors were trying to survive impwith their bench unit in the third quarter was also indicative.
The Raptors may not have a path or a clear direction, but they keep pushing forward, and every once in a while surprise even themselves.