The three-point attempts might be rising, but as with everything else in Lowry’s game, the risks are carefully considered. Watching Lowry chase down the best possible shot is a fun sub-plot in any given game. In the second quarter, he kept drifting to his right as Carroll dribbled in the same direction. If he stood still, there would have been no shot; instead, the floor was spaced properly, and he took the pass and hit the shot. He has also made a habit out of coming around a screen, and instead of continuing a path toward the paint as DeMar DeRozan might, stepping back behind the arc for a three. “They’ll run him off some screens,” Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said. “He’s very good knowing that if the guy is chasing him, he’s gonna curl and maybe get that quick shot off. Or if you go over the top, he’s going to fade to the side.” Even beyond somebody as accurate and meticulous as Lowry, the league has become far more liberal with long-range shots. The war on three-pointers is clearly over after the ascendance of the Golden State Warriors.
In the 196 minutes that the two point guards have shared the floor together this season, the Raptors are outscoring opponents by 17.2 points per-100 possessions, according to data from NBA.com. That makes them the most effective and one of the most used point guard duos in the NBA so far this season, and it’s little surprise that Casey has continued playing them double-digit minutes together as a result. That’s in part because while putting a second point guard on the floor is normally done to goose the offense, the Lowry-Joseph pairing has been locking opponents down, too. The Raptors have been much better at both ends of the floor with both point guards playing, per data from NBAWowy.com (their numbers differ slightly from the NBA.com data as the two sites calculate possessions differently).
Just when it looked like the Raptors were getting the message and clamping down on those Suns hanging around that three-point line, Teletovic got it going again with two more in the fourth. “We gotta stop putting ourselves in a tough predicament and fighting our way out when we don’t have a lot of time,” said DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors leading scorer with 29 points. “We find ourselves in that position a little bit too much. Once we clean up the little things on both ends it will be easier for us to close out games.” The Raptors actually wound up bettering the Suns in the three-ball department with 12 to the Suns 11, but the combination of the paint points and the threes put the Raptors in a hole. “If we had just cleaned up half the three-pointers and forced them to take difficult shots, we easily win this game,” DeRozan said. “It’s easy to talk about it and now we have to look at it on film and clean it up.”
Kyle Lowry missed a layup he can make in his sleep, Cory Joseph threw a lazy pass that led to a turnover, an outlet pass that would have ignited a two-on-one break bounded into the first row of seats, and Luis Scola had a potential game-tying three-pointer blocked with seconds to go when the Raptors had to scramble off a busted play. “We’ve got to stop putting ourselves in a tough predicament and fighting our way out when we don’t have much time,” said DeMar DeRozan, who led Toronto with 29 points. “We find ourselves in that position too many times, and once we clean up little things on both ends, it’ll be easier for us to close out games.” Toronto’s lack of crispness was no more evident than in the myriad ways the Suns ran up a points total about 20 more than the Raptors had given up on average in a four-game winning streak. Phoenix got 46 points in the paint, which is bad enough, but it was made worse by the fact the Suns drained 11 three-pointers as well and turned 13 offensive rebounds into 14 points. Perhaps Toronto could have stolen a game with one of those coming into play but they had no chance with all of them going against the hosts.
Eric Bledsoe blocked a three-point attempt from Luis Scola with 0.2 seconds remaining and the Raptors trailing by three. Although an exciting rally late helped the Raptors to tie the game with four minutes remaining, the 11-point fourth quarter deficit proved to be too much for the team to overcome on the second night of a back-to-back. The 107-102 loss to the Suns moves the Raptors to 11-7 on the season.
But the Raptors couldn’t locate their offense and their defense at the same time. The Suns, playing small without Tyson Chandler, were gunning from the outset. They shot 40 percent from three, and had five players in double figures by the end. (And only two of them were starters–Brandon Knight with 16 points and Eric Bledsoe with 20.) The story for most of the game was the Raptors inability to mark Mirza Teletovic, who bombed away from deep to the tune of 6-of-7 from deep (7-of-9 overall) for 20 points. Jon Leuer also had himself a game for 16 points including threes and a couple of huge dunks, and TJ Warren added 15. It was a balanced attack for the Suns, who clearly took advantage at times of Toronto’s tired legs. “Well the problem was the second chance points,” said Casey after the game. “They had 14 second chance points to a team that was playing small.” There’s one stat that doesn’t exactly jump out at you in the box score. But Casey went further: “Again back-to-back is no excuse, running out of gas. In fact we shot better from the three than they did. Doing the dirty work, the gritty work are things we have to do.” It was a decidedly non-analytical way to summarize the game, but it offers the best explanation.
The fourth quarter was an ugly affair. The Raptors chipped away at the lead until tying the game at 95 with four minutes left. At that point, it felt like neither team wanted control of the game as silly turnover was followed by bad foul was followed by terrible miss until P.J. Tucker came up with a huge put back of a missed Markieff Morris jumper to put Phoenix up 103-97 with 1:03 left in the game. From that point on, it should have been a matter of the Suns making their free throws, but they couldn’t even get that right. Eric Bledsoe and T.J. Warren missed 2 of their 4 free throws in the final minutes, allowing the Raps a chance to tie the game on the final possession, but Eric Bledsoe blocked Luis Scola’s three-point attempt with 0.2 seconds left on the clock and that was that.
The Suns had 51 bench points from Leuer, Teletovic and Warren and the fourth Suns reserve, Ronnie Price, was scoreless but had the team’s best plus-minus with the Suns outscoring the Raptors by nine in his 22 minutes. “We’re out there moving the ball, sharing the ball, being aggressive, making the right plays,” said Leuer, who made two 3s and twice drove for slams. “When you play the right way, get good shots and gets stops, the game becomes easy. “We really needed a win. We showed a lot of grit and determination, especially on the defensive end. It’s a great win to build off of.”
Smart team defense is the name of the game. Against the Raptors, the Suns’ starting lineup may have struggled with Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Markieff Morris combining to shoot 30 percent on 46 combined attempts, but the defense — even with center Tyson Chandler sidelined with a strained hamstring — proved capable.
When the Raptors play the Suns, very little defence is ever played. The pace of play was in favour of the Suns all night, and the Raptors played right into their hands. The Suns put up 94 shots and capitalized on their second chance opportunities. The Raptors didn’t look like they were all there on the defensive end. The likes of Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic were torching the Raptors’ bigs combining for 36 points off the bench. The uptempo game was just too much for the Raptors to handle as long shots led to recovered second chance opportunities leaving the Raptors’ defence scrambled and out of position on far too many occasions to recover in time.
If you watch any good small ball team (or really any good basketball team period), they constantly keep the ball moving. The offense has to be fluid, in motion. Everyone needs to touch the ball on every possession if possible until the right look opens up. DeRozan brings all of that to a screeching halt. It’s not like the Raptors can’t get into a method of doing it, and they often are able to, generally through three quarters. DeRozan has even partaken in it before, so we know he can do it. But most of the time this simply isn’t the case, and instead what we get is No. 10 holding the ball for several seconds as he sizes up his man, then proceeds to drive into him and ends up taking a tough shot like a fallaway jumper. DeRozan plays like a poor man’s James Harden. Or maybe a rich man’s Kobe Bryant (sorry Lakers fans, I had to)? Where this has become a massive problem for Toronto is in the fourth quarter. For some odd reason, even if the Raps are playing well and they are moving the ball like they need to be, DeRozan seems to feel the need to play hero-ball and try to take over the final 12 minutes himself.
Joseph may have come into the game shooting just 25 percent (4-for-16) from behind the arc on the season. But he surely has not had a more wide open look at a trey, maybe in his entire career. With the Washington defense looking as confused and ineffective as members of Congress, Joseph practically had time to order out for a pizza before he loaded up, let fly and found the bottom of the net.
Photo Credit: Darren Calabrese / The Canadian Press
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