Last summer, there were three teams that were rumoured to be going after Eric Bledsoe in trade talks. Orlando, Phoenix and our Toronto Raptors. As we know, it was the Suns that won the Bledsoe sweepstakes and a team that everyone picked to be one of the worst teams in the league, right now has a winning record in the West (10-9). If the Suns played in the Eastern Conference, they would be a third seed. In the West, they are sitting at nine.
Bledsoe is currently averaging 18.8 ppg on .491 from the field, grabbing 4.2 rpg and dishing out 5.9 apg while sharing point guard duties with the equally impressive Goran Dragic. Together, those two lead a very surprising Suns team that has done just about everything management can to tank, including trading their productive starting center, Marcin Gortat, to Washington for a guy who might never play again and a first round draft pick.
The Suns also have first round picks from Minnesota AND Indiana. So they will have four first round picks, in 2014, three of which will probably be pretty decent. And they are probably a Dragic trade away from quickly losing ground in the West and entering the tank zone, if they choose.
About the only thing not to like about what the Suns are doing is them deciding to go with the stupid trend of sleeved jerseys.
I mean, is there ANYONE who really thinks these sleeved jerseys look good? Why are teams doing this? But I digress…
The Raptors, on the other hand, traded away the guy who had a negative impact on the team and strengthened the bench. They had apparent momentum after a strong finish the previous season, but while the Suns are doing better than expected, the Raptors have been a major disappointment for most Raptor fans and currently sit with a 6-11 record, good for 10th in a horrid East.
After the debacle that happened in Golden State, this game against the Suns is a gut-check. Too many of the Raptor players seemed to be fine with losing the 27 point lead. Hold on, let me just clarify this. Not only did the Raptors give up a 27 point lead, but it was a 36 point turnaround in less than two quarters.
You almost need to want the other team to win in order to allow that. A game like that has so much stench to it, that a roster purge seems almost inevitable just to get rid of it. Kind of like what Dallas did when they collapsed in the Finals against the Heat in 2005. Only two players remained on that team when they went to the Finals five years later and won.
Of course, the Raptors roster remains intact, for now.
Some fans will want me to point to some positives. Like the Raptors defense, that is rated 12th in the league. Of course, this is the same defense that gave up 42 points in the all important fourth quarter against the Warriors. Zach Harper, of CBS Sports, looked at just how poor the defense was in that game, and it’s a bit horrifying. He even included screenshots, for those who like pictures.
He also included this Tweet:
In the 4th quarter, the Warriors’ offensive rating was 207. Two Hundred and Seven. Over two points per possession…
— Kevin Draper (@kevinmdraper) December 4, 2013
And they gave up 36 points to Denver in the fourth quarter in the previous game.
They had played good defense in the fourth quarter in many of the other recent games, but consistency is what separates good teams from bad teams. If the Raptors don’t play good defense, they don’t win because they are one of the worst shooting teams in the league and back in the basement in assists.
The teams that the Raptors have had the most success against have been lower scoring teams, like Memphis and Boston. The Raptors are near the bottom of the league in pace, and we saw what happened against Golden State when the pace sped up. The Raptors simply don’t have the firepower to compete with higher scoring teams.
The Suns are a middle of the road team in scoring, but near the top of the league in field goal percentage. Interestingly, they are near the bottom of the league in assists, just a few slots above the Raptors, despite basically starting two point guards. This could be an indication that the Suns might have trouble against a good defensive team. The question is whether the Raptors will be playing good defense tonight. And whether they will do it for a full 48 minutes.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS
Will DeMar DeRozan continue his hot shooting?
DeRozan has shot 50% or more in 7 of the last 9 games, and has shot 46% from the three point line in those same 9 games. And he’s scoring 25.4 ppg during that time. While it might seem it will last forever, logic dictates it won’t. The degree of difficulty in a lot of the shots he’s been hitting has been high, and lots of players go through hot streaks. The question is how long will it last.
He had a similar 9 game streak at the end of last season. And no Raptor fan can forget Bargnani’s mythic 13 games.
Phoenix features a small backcourt (Green, who is a shooting guard, starts at small forward), and DeRozan usually plays well against smaller opponents he can post up. If Bledsoe defends him, though, Bledsoe is a strong defender, and I literally mean strong. He might give DeRozan difficulty in the post, if he defends him, but DeRozan should have his way with Dragic.
Will Rudy Gay continue to suck?
Gay was finalist in Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose’ Least Value Player Award, for the first Birdmester of the season. Simmons, on his most recent BS Report, also called Toronto the worst team in the league to watch, thanks mostly to Rudy Gay.
The stats don’t even do justice for how bad Gay is playing. He’s become the butt of jokes among NBA analysts almost on the level of Rob Ford. Okay, not really, but Toronto is not looking good, right now, thanks to the combination of Ford and Gay. When Golden State was in the midst of it’s comeback, Gay was nowhere to be found. Not exactly what you want from what is SUPPOSED to be your best player.
In theory, Gay should dominate the much smaller Green, inside, but coach Casey will probably end up going small to match the Suns, moving Gay to the four. And Gay will probably continue to pound the ball into submission as he makes up his mind whether to take a long two or a contested long two. Decisions, decisions.
Will Jonas Valanciunas play more than 27 minutes?
Phoenix has the type of front court that Valanciunas tends to dominate. Channing Frye has decent size, but he doesn’t really have the strength or bulk to defend Valanciunas in the post well. And the only other players on the roster above 6’10 are rookie Alex Len and Viacheslav Kravtsov, who have combined for a total of 54 minutes.
This is the type of game that Casey should use Valanciunas to punish the smaller Phoenix players, but we all know how much he likes to go small. Playing small will play right into the Suns hands and will mean we won’t see Valanciunas in the fourth quarter, as usual.
No matter who plays point guard, the Suns have an advantage. Bledsoe is physically dominant and Dragic is a crafty player who makes those around him better. Lowry and whoever backs him up will have their hands full.
DeRozan has been on a hot streak, but both Dragic and Bledsoe are simply more productive players than DeRozan. If DeRozan isn’t scoring, there’s not much he can do to help the team, unlike Bledsoe and Dragic. The one advantage DeRozan has is his size and his history for playing well against smaller opponents.
Gerald Green takes four fewer shots than Gay, yet scores just two fewer points. Gay does shoot better from the three point line, get to the line more, grab more rebounds and actually dishes out more assists than Green. Of course, my guess is that Green actually touches the ball about thirty minutes less a game than Gay does. Gay is a better player, but he hasn’t been playing that way. Still, there’s always the chance Gay will actually decide to have one of his better games.
The Raptors have Amir Johnson, who was one of the few who played well against the Warriors, and Tyler Hansbrough, who has played well enough to get pushed into the starting lineup. The Suns have one of the Plumlee brothers. I’m not sure which one, but I’m not sure it matters. They both play pretty much the same way. They also have BOTH Morris twins, and they both are having very good seasons.
As I said, this is the type of matchup Valanciunas should do well in. Both he and Frye play the same amount of minutes and score about the same amount of points. But while Valanciunas does most of his damage in the paint, Channing takes 4.6 threes a game and hits close to 40% from there. Will Valanciunas be able to defend Frye on the perimeter?
I’m going to go with Valanciunas, but there’s a chance that Frye could have a great game because there really isn’t a big who can defend him out at the three point line, and players like Frye tend to have big games against the Raptors.
While Casey’s days might be numbered, rookie head coach, Jeff Hornacek, has been a great find for Phoenix. The team has overperformed, they look well coached and he’s done well with a oddly constructed roster. Hornacek has been able to relate to the young roster and gain their respect.
On paper, the Raptors look like they are a more talented team than the Suns, but the game isn’t played on Paper. The Suns have been playing well, while the Raptors are the leading candidate to have the next players only meeting. As far as I know, there isn’t a Raptor who has a house in Phoenix they can all get together (they’re 2-0 after such events), so it’s hard to envision the Raptors breaking their losing streak just yet.
Score: Suns 94 – Raptors 86