After two big losses, the road-weary Raptors (3-13) return to the ACC tonight to take on the Phoenix Suns (7-9), and need a win like Michael Jordan needs new golf shorts. I’m sure going into the season Raptor fans were not expecting the team’s 17th game to be a “must-win,” but it’s sure feeling that way going into tonight with the team mired in a six-game losing streak and a long road trip looming. Put simply, the Raps should (and, quite frankly, have to) be raring to go for this one.
The new-look Phoenix Suns have put together the inconsistent start to the season expected of a team with so many new faces, and are coming off a 40-point blowout loss to the Pistons Wednesday (and you thought the Rockets game was bad!). As could be expected with their personnel, the Suns are a reasonable offensive team (15th in the league in O-rating), but are one of the few teams who have been worse than the Raps on D this year (28th in D-rating), so points should be there for the taking, even if Bargnani doesn’t suit up (no word yet, but it sounds like his injury is minor, so I’d expect him to play).
The Suns, like the Raptors, are a roster with many new faces this year who are still learning to play together, but there is no shortage of talent on the opposing bench tonight. Goran Dragic is a criminally underrated guard who will give Lowry all he can handle with his offense, and Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Luis Scola form a solid starting big man rotation (backed up by every Raptor fan’s favorite player, Jermaine O’Neal). The Raptors should have the advantage at guard, as they do against most mediocre teams – Dragic is a very similar player to Calderon in that he’s all-offense with marginal defence (Dragic does it with slashing, Jose with shooting), and Lowry should be able to shred him with the ball and get to the rim at will. Lowry’s had a very up-and-down week, and a big game tonight is crucial to getting him back on the right track before the pivotal road trip of the next two weeks.
The Raptors’ garbage-dump at small forward shouldn’t be as evident tonight as it was in the past few games – the Suns start Michael Beasley at the position, a good-but-not-great player who’s never really lived up to the massive hype put on him coming out of Kansas State. Beasley is a big 3 – he’s played some of his NBA career at power forward – and I hope that his presence in the Suns’ starting lineup will free up Casey to be a bit more creative at the position and play Bargnani, or even Ed Davis, there given the matchup. That said, Casey’s rotations have been as confusing as the Bobcats having a winning record, so I’m not holding my breath.
As far as the bigs go, Jonas will continue his trial-by-fire against Marcin Gortat, another big, smart centre who will give him everything he can handle. Gortat’s size should give Jonas some trouble on the defensive end, but he is a pretty slow-footed defender, and early returns show that Jonas has success scoring on slow bigs, so I expect their matchup to be a microcosm of this game – a lot of scoring, and a lot of ineffective effort on defence.
There’s not a ton more to say here – Shannon Brown and Jared Dudley are both solid, but not special, all-round players – the kind of matchup that DeMar should be licking his chops at if he really wants to assert himself as a number one scoring option. He is the kind of guy who seems to rise to the occasion when his back’s against the wall (one of few Raps, unfortunately), so I fully expect him to have a big game tonight following a couple of uninspired performances.
Actually, let’s extrapolate that. That’s what I expect from all the Raptors. Lowry said it best last night in an interview with the Toronto Sun:
“We’re not buried, but we’re five feet under. We’ve got a team that’s going to fight and claw and chip away and get to two feet, to three feet, and get above ground.”
Time to start clawing. Lines aren’t posted yet (I’m assuming because of Bargnani’s uncertain status), but I’ll make my prediction anyway. Raptors by 2 in a high scoring, hard fought game. The season – and the remaining shreds of optimism I have about this team – depend on it.