Gameday: Suns @ Raptors, March 16

Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the Suns.

The 37-27 Toronto Raptors try to get on that C. Montgomery Burns plan on Sunday at 1 p.m. (on Sportsnet One), hoping to shut down the 37-28 Phoenix Suns when they visit the Air Canada Centre.

Let’s hope it’s as fun a game as Friday was against the Grizzlies, when the Raps won their fifth in six games and their eighth in the last 10. Phoenix is coming off a win, too, but the Cinderella Suns may be approaching midnight. Their terribly entertaining season now appears it could hand with heartbreak as the nine-seed out West, as they’ve gone 8-10 in their past 18 and now sit a game back of Memphis.

Don’t take that tough stretch as the Suns regressing to the point of being bad, though. This is still a difficult match-up, one that’s going to require a great deal of defensive discipline.

To help us set the stage, I reached out to the incredibly handsome, well-bearded and talented Andrew Lynch, writer at Hardwood Paroxysm and host of ESPN’s Daily Dime Live chats.

1) Is there any way to stop Goran Dragic?

Pack the paint. It’s not foolproof; Dragic is shooting 41% from three-point range this season, so he can beat you on the perimeter, too. And the Suns as a team are more than willing to launch from downtown if teams give them just a little bit of space. But if you’re trying to limit Dragic, the best approach is to stop him from getting to the rim. If he can knife through your defense, you’re toast.

2) The Suns give up plenty of looks within five feet and allow teams to hit at an average clip inside. On the surface, it looks like simply a personnel issue, but is there a method behind the easy trips inside?

Defense has been the bugaboo in Phoenix’s recent swoon out of the ranks of playoff contention, and it’s really been the monster lurking under the bed all season, barring a solid first month or so. Some of it is pace; as the seventh fastest team in the league, the Suns give up a lot of attempts from everywhere. The long and the short of it, however, is that Phoenix’s inability to stop teams from getting to the rim will likely end their run to the postseason.

3) The team boasts, at minimum, four candidates for Most Improved Player (as well as Coach and Executive of the Year candidates). Assuming you can only nominate one, who is it, and what do you think their chances are?

I’m rolling with Markieff Morris, with apologies to Dragic, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee. His true shooting percentage is up 8.2%, his effective field goal percentage is up 5.3%, he’s getting to the line way more often — and all these numbers are indicative of a real shift in the way he’s approached the game. He’s eschewed 3-pointers in a concerted effort to punish opponents in the post. Sum the parts, and he’s a totally different player this year — and a much, much improved one.

4) Plumdog: Worst nickname or has it grown on you?

To each his own, but I’m not a fan. Sky Miles all the way.

5) They’re called Air Miles in Canada, which works just as well. Anyway, if the Suns fail to make the playoffs, does having four first-round picks soften the blow at all, or would it still be an utterly disappointing end to such a fun run?

It would be disappointing, but not in a soul-crushing way. The fact that they’re even in position to disappoint on that level is uplifting. They overachieved this year, and maybe that prevents them from coming away with a top-6 or top-7 pick. But I think it’s had real value for the players — not to mention the fans. The bevy of draft picks helps, but more important is the confidence that Suns fans now have in the people making the decisions with those picks. Things are looking up in Phoenix, even as their chances of making the playoffs are on the decline.

Vegas says: Off the board as of this writing, which is a bit surprising given neither team plays Saturday. I’d guess the line comes out at Raptors -2, though, with an over/under a shade above 200.
Hollinger says: Raptors -5.5
Phoenix legend Stevie Nicks says: Goodbye

Blake says: Dragic and Eric Bledsoe pose a real problem for the defence, one that will make Kyle Lowry work his tail off on defense. It also means Terrence Ross may be asked to guard Bledsoe, and that Greivis Vasquez becomes a pretty major liability (unless you can hide him on a three, like P.J. Tucker). The pressure is on Amir Johnson to provide adequate help in the paint, and even then, he can’t really stray too far from Channing Frye. The Suns pose a lot of match-up problems, is what I’m saying.

Having said that, the same is true on the offensive end, where, as Andrew pointed out, the Suns are flawed. Tucker can body up DeMar DeRozan and Bledsoe’s aggression can be disruptive, sure, but Lowry and Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas should be able to carve Phoenix up with the pick-and-roll, freeing shooters and opening up weak-side action if and when the Suns scramble.

Given how Toronto has been playing of late, it’s almost impossible to pick against them at home. I don’t think it will be a cakewalk by any means, but I’ll say Raptors by seven in a very entertaining game.

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