PHOENIX – The plan was to come to the desert, see some sun and hopefully keep the momentum going.
Well, the Toronto Raptors came close. For 42 minutes, they played the Phoenix Suns even or better and looked poised to steal another win on their long road trip. But NBA games are 48 minutes long and the Raptors lost the final six minutes decisively in what ended up being a 114-106 Suns victory.
The loss dropped Toronto to 2-2 on its road trip and 23-29 on the season, while the Suns improved to 27-25 as the two short-handed teams split the season series.
Trailing by one with just over six minutes to play, the Raptors’ offence hit a wall as it scored just three field goals over the game’s most critical stretch and didn’t manage to get to the line, either. The Raptors’ two turnovers were another factor as the Suns were able to get just enough of their own offence – some tough, contested jumpers by Miles Bridges and a back-breaking three by Chris Paul with just over a minute that were all part of the Suns’ surge.
It wasn’t like the Suns ran away with it – holding an opponent to just 16 points down the stretch is nothing to be ashamed of, but when you score just 10 points yourself, including a few lay-ups in the final seconds, when Phoenix began prioritizing defending the three-point line, you have a problem. Especially if your opponents make their free throws in the final minutes, which the Suns did.
“I don’t know how many fourth-quarter shootouts you see from us these days. We get some stops and we’re in good shape there,” said the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet. “It dries up, they don’t dry up, it’s tough. They threw some shots in that we needed to miss. Got some good looks offensively. I know I certainly had a lot of good ones, created and generated some good shots. That’ll hurt tonight when you go to sleep. We fought hard, competed. Give them credit, they outplayed us in the last six minutes to win the game.”
It’s a little ironic because the Raptors have been playing some of their best offensive basketball as of late, but if consistency was a card the Raptors had to play, their season would be different.
All five Raptors starters hit double figures led by VanVleet, who had 24 points and nine assists. The Raptors shot 9-of-33 from deep to 11-of-28 by the Suns, who shot 49.4 per cent from the floor to the Raptors’ 44.9 per cent. Phoenix was led by Bridges, who finished with 29 while Paul had 19 points and nine assists.
The Suns had just 12 turnovers for the game, while the Raptors had 14.
The road trip also got that much harder, as the Raptors announced before the game that O.G. Anunoby would be out for the rest of their trip with the wrist injury he suffered on Friday when attempting a dunk against the Golden State Warriors. He was wearing a brace or splint on it, and while there was no detail given on the extent of the injury, the timeline seemed firm, though coach Nick Nurse seemed to be hoping for a little more wriggle room.
“It’s a little surprising to me,” Nurse said. “This trip has a long way to go yet. It’s not like this trip is ending around the corner. So, it’s a little surprising to me. We know what we have now with this trip.”
For the Suns, the game plan was relatively simple, based on their last meeting with the Raptors in Toronto on Dec. 30, when the short-handed Suns basically gave a win away.
“(We) turned it over 27 times. Try not to do that,” said Suns head coach Monty Williams before the game. “I think you have to understand why you turned it over. When you play in crowds, you have to understand they’ll make you pay. They go after the ball when it’s low or high and get their hands on a lot of balls. Playing in a crowd, making one-handed passes in coverage, interior passing against this team, you don’t see a lot of teams accomplish that. That, along with not giving them extra possessions. That’s what they do. They turn you over and crash the glass and they have an All-Star point guard who knows how to manage games.”
In the early going, the Suns followed their game plan well and, briefly, it looked the Raptors were going to be racking up big turnover totals. Toronto – the least turnover-prone team in the league – gave the ball away six times in the first, three of them by Scottie Barnes.
However, the second-year forward offset his mistakes with a steal of a pass that would have resulted in a dunk by Suns centre DeAndre Ayton, and later a block of Ayton at point-blank range too. The giveaways – four in the first 5:34 of the game — helped the Suns jump out to a 14-8 lead and their final turnover of the quarter resulted in a three by Bridges – his third on three attempts put the Suns up 28-21. But a quick 7-0 Raptors spurt tied the game before a Chris Paul triple at the horn gave Phoenix a 31-28 lead to start the second quarter.
Turnovers continued to be a problem as Toronto made five more in the second frame. Toronto also struggled from deep in the first quarter, shooting just 1-of-7 from deep in the opening 12 minutes and 4-of-13 for the half. The Suns, on the other hand, were on fire, shooting 8-of-16 as Bridges went off for 23 points in the first half and pushed Phoenix’s lead 62-53 to start the third quarter.
The Raptors took their first lead of the game with 10-0 run to start the second half that started with a three from Siakam and featured three straight pushes up the middle of the floor and into the Suns’ paint by VanVleet – two to score and the last to pitch out to Gary Trent Jr. for a three.
It was a microcosm of the resurgent Raptors’ offence of late. Their offensive rating over the past 11 games before Monday – a stretch in which they are 6-5 – was 121.5 points per 100 possessions, which placed them fourth in the NBA. Before that, the Raptors were 19th in offensive rating and generating 112.4 points per 100 possessions.
“The issues that kept the offence behind, first and foremost, were the shooting, that’s certainly improved and a lot of that is related directly to health. It just is. Wasn’t much we could do about it, we were creating great shots by our best shooters, and they just couldn’t make ‘em, but now they can,” said Nurse, by way of explanation, while adding:
“We score better in transition off our turnovers … getting better at that, getting better at our other positive offensive possessions off of stops, the screening, the passing, the cutting, we’re getting a lot more cutting baskets as well.
“Think there’s a number of things that are factoring in.”
Several of them were evident in the third as Toronto tidied up its turnovers and mostly pushed the pace with the ball, with VanVleet leading the way. He scored 10 points in the quarter and organized the Raptors’ attack. They didn’t make a turnover and forced five from the Suns to take an 84-82 lead into the fourth.
At that point, Nurse went to an unusual lineup, playing Barnes with Juancho Hernangomez, Thad Young, Malachi Flynn and Chris Boucher. It was a risky way to preserve his starters’ legs, but he more or less got away with it. A pair of big threes by little-used Malachi Flynn helped, the second of which was set up by a steal and a diving recovery by 16-year veteran Young. With Siakam and VanVleet back on the floor to join Barnes, the Raptors were still leading with just over six minutes to play.
But even with his starters back in, the Raptors’ offence floundered, and Toronto heads to Salt Lake City looking for momentum again.