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Raptors come close in Phoenix, good enough

What Denver did to the Raptors the Raptors had a chance to do to Phoenix.

Raptors 106, Suns 114 – Box

A long, long time ago in a world when the Raptors used to beat the Suns I used to look forward to these 10PM starts in anticipation of spending the late evening enjoying meaningful basketball knowing I could write a recap right after the game, and then wake up to a late breakfast. Then I got a job. Then I got a wife. Then I got a kid. And now here I am at 2AM with a wake-up time of 6AM.

What Denver did to the Raptors the Raptors had a chance to do to Phoenix. After an emotional triple-overtime game the night before in LA the Suns looked exhausted after three minutes in the first quarter. Jay Triano’s strategy, as he revealed at halftime, was to increase the tempo and give Phoenix a dose of their own medicine, hoping to exhaust them to the point where they’d forfeit at hafltime. The Raptors played the part in compounding Phoenix’s misery early through DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani’s offense, neither of which Phoenix had an answer for. Andrea Bargnani always appears to do well against Frye (closer look says they’re pretty much even) and so he went about posting him up, driving at him and collecting the points he usually gets. In a moment reminding us how Raptors fans are accustomed to Bargnani, Jack Armstrong described Bargnani’s 12-foot fadeaway over Frye as an “aggressive move”. It went in so no problem.

DeMar DeRozan had Vince Carter and Grant Hill matched up against him in the early stages and he didn’t find any trouble getting space for his jumper. The other swing, James Johnson, has been seen playing a lot of point-forward of late and so he did again in the first half last night, with effectiveness too. The Raptors sparkling offense was shooting 55% by the end of the first and just like I didn’t rip the team after the Denver blowout, I’m not going to shower them with praise for keeping this close. There were many Phoenix defensive plays which showed just how out of it they were, my favorite was James Johnson driving after some side pick ‘n roll confusion for a thunderous dunk as the D didn’t budge. Alvin Gentry took out Grant Hill (great defense on Kobe the night before), evacuated Vince Carter (two early threes, trash otherwise) and put in the bench with had the desired effect.

A modest 10-4 Phoenix run in the second quarter got the crowd back into it and you got the feeling that the Raptors didn’t quite capitalize on Phoenix’ lethargy in the first. The Raptors bench led by Barbosa was great, but Phoenix’s was better and outscored their counterpart 63-40, the pesky Aaron Brooks abusing Jose Calderon at will for 25. Mind you that Phoenix did play its reserves a lot more (138 minutes to the Raptors’ 91). The Suns resurgence was only offensive and the Raptors should have had a bigger hafltime lead than just six at 61-55 but the double-whammy of turnovers leading to points hurt them. Credit to the Raptors for outscoring Phoenix 14-4 in the first half on fastbreak points, not many teams can ‘gun’ with the Suns and for the first half at least, the Raptors were doing fine.

The expectation was for Phoenix to play their starters more minutes in the second half to pull them away, but Gentry chose to stick with the crew that had lifted them in the second. Phoenix deployed a zone as a measure of preserving energy more than anything, except it had the side effect of being useful. At 31.5%, the Raptors are the worst three-point shooting team in the league so the decision to test the Raptors’ jumpers instead of allowing them to drive against tired legs made sense in a lot of ways. A 6-0 Raptors run had started the third and this looked to be a repeat of the first quarter until Nash remembered that he’s won 17 straight against the Raptors. He orchestrated better on the pick ‘n rolls and the Suns’ offense was flowing once again. The Raptors weren’t getting out on the break as much anymore (lost fastbreak points 6-8 in the second half) and their defense suffered because of poor defensive rebounding – Marcin Gortat causing major problems leading Phoenix +7 and +5 in offensive and defensive rebounding, respectively.

Andrea Bargnani had 16 at the half and Barbosa had returned to a nice reception to score 9, but when the Raptors needed them to crack the zone consistently, they couldn’t stand up to be counted. DeRozan struggled as well and Phoenix was now making the Raptors work a lot harder on defense which took away from their offense. The Brooks-powered 15-2 Phoenix run which ended the third can’t be called fatal because at its conclusion the score was 86-86, but the sense that the Raptors had already lost this game was creeping in very quickly. Jose Calderon’s attempts to breathe life into the offense in the fourth were appreciated, and he did pull off a couple great passes, if you think there’s a but coming soon here there is. BUT he was torched by Brooks on dribble penetration too often and even the current shadow of the old Phoenix teams know how to make you pay by swinging the ball.

Triano went with DeMar DeRozan and four other bench players for the first four minutes of the fourth, presumably to give Bargnani and company a bit of rest. In that span, Phoenix only took a one point lead. Bargnani didn’t capitalize and went 1-4 in the fourth and was largely ineffective. Disappearing in the fourth has been a story with him of late, I wouldn’t blame him too much because his game is such that any concerned defense will be able to slow him down just by paying a little more attention to him. Bargnani is far more dangerous as the recipient of passes for open threes, a dribble and a shot, quick glide to the rim etc. What he is not is a creator off the bounce which is what he’s forced to do too often.

Phoenix did their own resting as afforded by the good play of Aaron Brooks and Zabian Dowdell, they had Nash on the bench for the first 6:49 of the fourth quarter, when he returned he had 7 back-breaking points and 2 assists (both to Gortat at the rim). Ed Davis had some nice moments finding the soft spot in the zone and waving his arms until he was found for dunks and had a nice overall rebounding game. For the Raptors, DeRozan only took four shots in the fourth (made two), and Bargnani as mentioned was 1-4. These were two guys who were firing early and were silent late, that’s a problem.

Sonny Weems, otherwise having a decent game, made two bad decisions: a turnover in transition which should have been two points, and a bad decision to take a three, both were costly. The Raptors didn’t even need to play defense to win this game, they just had to continue scoring and maybe try to figure out how this zone thing works since they play it so often themselves. Their scoring by quarter got worse every time: 32, 29, 25 and finally a pathetic 20. What should have been a meaningless win is now a meaningless loss.

I suppose I should comment on Jerryd Bayless’ flagrant foul on Channing Frye, it was a dumb move which cost the team two points and got the crowd into the game as well. Jack Armstrong said he didn’t see anything in the call, I say it was a clear flagrant as defined by the book – you can’t pull a guy down by his shoulder at any point, that too without any visible provocation. Yeah, you went to the same high school as Frye but c’mon now, get your head in the game.

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