The schedule is about to turn easy for the Toronto Raptors, with eight consecutive games against sub-.500 opponents. On the bright side, that’s a nice balancing out that could allow them to gather some momentum in the win column and really cement themselves in the conference standings. Conversely, for a team that has sometimes lacked energy out of the gate or a second-half killer instinct, the schedule could be looked at as a series of potential trap games.
Tuesday will see the Phoenix Suns visit on the second night of a back-to-back, playing their sixth road game in 10 nights. So not only are the Raptors up against a 9-16 team that owns the worst defense in basketball, they’re going up against a tired 9-16 team that owns the worst defense in basketball. Toronto is trying not to think that way, because they have a lot of things internally to focus and work on.
“You watch that, you see that. You understand the schedule, how many games you’ve played in a number of days,” head coach Dwane Casey said Monday. “But again, you’ve got to take care of who we are. This team has come in the last couple years and beat us. And at that time, they weren’t playing particularly well. One year, they came in on a back-to-back. We didn’t come in and take care of business. No matter who we play, whether it’s Phoenix or whoever it is, Cleveland, Boston, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to come in with a sense of urgency that our backs are against the wall. Because if you look at the Eastern Conference, it’s tight. A couple bad games and you’re outside looking in.”
And it’s not as if the Suns are a total cakewalk. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers 115-101 on Monday, and the Sixers are hardly an easy out, especially at home. Rest advantage or not (and boy, should the Raptors be well-rested), the Raptors have to take care of business, lest Devin Booker and T.J. Warren combine for 70 and the game come down much closer to the wire than it should.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: Former Raptors head coach Jay Triano seemed to give the Suns a bit of a post-Earl Watson spark, but things have really normalized since. What kind of a job is Triano doing? Or is this a case of him being tough to evaluate since he’s largely playing babysitting until a more clear plan is established?
Rod Argent: I think Triano has done a good job since taking over. The so called “dead coach bounce” was certainly real when he first took over but the players seem to have responded well to him and his ‘no hustle, no play’ philosophy, especially on the defensive side. They may not always play good defense but they play hard now on D. And there’s definitely more passing and off the ball movement on the offensive side. Those things haven’t translated into more wins yet but they’re healthy changes for a young team.
Blake Murphy: Dealing Eric Bledsoe came shortly after the Watson firing. What were your thoughts on the return? Is Greg Monroe a buyout candidate?
Rod Argent: Most fans weren’t too happy with the return but I thought it wasn’t bad under the circumstances. Monroe might be a buyout candidate but I would be shocked if it happened before the trade deadline. I wouldn’t be surprised if he remained on the team throughout the season if another team has interest in a mid-season trade for Tyson Chandler but the more obvious trade candidate is Monroe. Whatever happens with Monroe, I doubt that he is in the Suns’ long-term plans and he won’t be back next season.
Blake Murphy: I saw a lot of people trying to write off Dragan Bender last year, even though he was still 19 at the time. What kind of a step forward has he taken as a sophomore? Has he shown enough to maintain optimism long-term?
Rod Argent: Some people are still writing him off even though he just turned 20 about 2 weeks ago. His problem is mostly inconsistency. He will look very good in one game and then almost disappear in the next. He missed a good portion of his first season after undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs which I think slowed down his development. I certainly haven’t given up on him but I think he needs to show continuing improvement – and consistency – over this season to maintain my optimism.
Blake Murphy: I don’t know why the Suns would want Jonas Valanciunas, but can the Raptors please have Jared Dudley, somehow?
Rod Argent: LOL. Duds is a marvel, just the kind of a player you want in the twilight of his career. He’s an extra developmental coach for the younger guys plus someone you can always count on to come into a game and make a few smart plays whenever you need them. I like Valanciunas but the Suns are trying to shed long-term salary, not add it… and we already have too many centers (Monroe, Chandler, Alex Len & Alan Williams).
Blake Murphy: OVO Bounce standout Mike James has been awesome for the Suns. How much fun has a big find like that – on a two-way deal (for now), no less – been for a team that absolutely needs a win or two like that?
Rod Argent: I’ve liked what Mike James has brought to the Suns so far but a lot of fans have soured on him as of late. The reason for that is, since the departure of Eric Bledsoe, the Suns have found themselves without a starting caliber point guard. James is good but not that good and many fans vent their frustration with the team on him. Mike is still finding his way in the NBA and will have good and bad games. Unfortunately, many fans seem to mostly focus on the bad ones as the losses continue to pile up.
His time on the two-way contract will be up on Dec. 6 and the Suns don’t presently have an open roster spot to use to convert his two-way into a standard NBA contract. The Suns are going to have to either waive someone or pull off a trade that will open up a roster spot by then or let him walk as a free agent. Since he is one of only two point guards presently on the team, I can’t see them just letting him walk but something is going to have to happen very soon if they plan to keep him.
The Raptors had some updates on the positive and negative sides of the ledger coming out of Monday’s practice. The big news was that Delon Wright has progressed to shooting, which is good to hear. Originally expected to miss four-to-five weeks, Wright’s been on the shelf for just shy of three weeks to this point. Fred VanVleet has been great filling in with an expanded role, and Wright returning sometime around Christmas could be an additional boost to the rotation that helps keep the minutes of the stars down.
Elsewhere, there’s no timetable for Lucas Nogueira’s return. Nogueira tore a muscle in his calf last week and received a PRP injection, and this type of somewhat vague injury can have varying recovery timelines. That Nogueira hasn’t proven the quickest healer in the past seemed to color Casey’s outlook when asked. Adding to the center issue is that Jakob Poeltl was sent home from practice Monday due to illness, and his status is up in the air for this one. If both Poeltl and Nogueira couldn’t play, it would be a huge Jonas Valanciunas game, and Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam would maybe see time at center as well. Poeltl’s illness could be of the 24-hour variety or he could be able to play through it, so there’s not much cause for alarm yet.
Kyle Lowry also missed practice Monday but it was for an excused absence that’s been set for weeks. Alfonzo McKinnie was sent to Raptors 905 for their 11 a.m. tip at the Air Canada Centre and then he and Bruno Caboclo could both recalled for the night game. For the time being, they’re with the 905.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, (Jakob Poeltl)
OUT: Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: Jakob Poeltl
905: Malcolm Miller, Bruno Caboclo, Alfonzo McKinnie
Phoenix might be coming in a little tired. They just played Philadelphia on Monday, and this will be the sixth game of a six-game, 10-day road-trip. That’s a tough stretch, and any team could be forgiven for being gassed, even a young one. What’s worse, three of their starters played 37 minutes or more last night and another played 34, so almost none of their primary pieces come in well-rested (though veterans Greg Monroe and Jared Dudley drew DNP-CDs on Monday and could draw in to the frontcourt rotation in the back-to-back scenario).
On top of the fatigue, the Suns are operating with three players out long-term in Brandon Knight, Davon Reed, and Alan Williams. Even with Mike James up on his two-way deal, the Suns have just 12 players at their disposal. Expect Jay Triano to roll with the same starters coming off of a good win but to go deeper into his bench.
PG: Tyler Ulis, Mike James
SG: Devin Booker, Troy Daniels
SF: T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson
PF: Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Jared Dudley
C: Tyson Chandler, Greg Monroe, Alex Len
OUT: Brandon Knight, Davon Reed, Alan Williams
Northern Arizona: Alec Peters, Derrick Jones Jr.
The Raptors are 13.5-point favorites with a 224.5 over-under.