Gameday: Raptors @ Suns, Dec. 29

The Raptors fought hard for a win last night, despite losing to the Golden State Warriors. They now find themselves playing the second game of a back-to-back, the third game in four nights, on the road, in the middle of an extended 6 game road trip. That’s the bad news. The good news is, it’s against Phoenix, who despite having a bunch of fun and promising young players like Devin Booker and TJ Warren, are terrible at winning basketball games. Booker in particular can be a joy to watch, and TJ Warren’s herky jerky, tweener, old school offensive game is a refreshing visual change. But a team full of 19-21 year-olds whose best players are all point guards is not an ideal recipe for success.

For many teams, this situation would have ‘rest your most overplayed veterans, especially if they’re nearly leading the league in minutes’ written all over it. But ‘DNP – rest’ has never been a move that Coach Casey has been particularly fond of. There might be some value in letting Lowry and DeRozan take out their frustrations from last night’s loss in Oakland out on the court against an overmatched Suns group. We shall see.

Regardless of who plays for the Raptors, they can start licking their chops at the putrid Phoenix defense that they’re going to be playing against. The Suns only win in their last 6 games came in a close match against the Sixers, one of only two teams in the league with less wins than them so far. Years ago, when Tyson Chandler won the defensive player of the year award playing for the Knicks, he “jokingly” thanked his teammates for making all the defensive mistakes that gave him so many opportunities to demonstrate his ability as a help and rim defender. This Suns team is giving him even more opportunities than Steve Novak and a checked-out JR Smith did, but I don’t exactly think he’s going to be thanking them any time soon for it. Phoenix ranks 27th in defensive efficiency, giving up 111 points per 100 possessions. A major contributor to their woeful defensive numbers is that they’ve been fouling opponents more often than any other team in the league. Phoenix is sending opponents to the line on nearly a third of their attempted field goals, a preposterously bad number. It’s difficult to stay in any game when you’re giving the opponent that many chances to beat you from the line, and it’s even harder when that opponent is DeMar DeRozan. Look for the Raptors to get to the free throw line early and often against the Suns.

When you’re playing against a bad team, especially if you’re not going to be resting your starters, it’s a great time to continue to work on making the kind of adjustments and habits that it’s hard to do otherwise with so little practice time in the NBA. One thing that the Raptors need to improve on is having Lowry and DeRozan recognize when teams try to trap with a double-team to counter the high pick-and-roll. Opponents have been doing this more and more as they recognize the opportunities the Raptors are trying to generate for their wings with this set and how uncommonly often the Raptors pick-and-roll ball handler is the one to consistently take the shot. The Warriors repeatedly stalled DeMar DeRozan with this action, as instead of switching pick-and-rolls when Valanciunas or Bebe would set a screen for DeMar, they would have the big run out and turn a hedging action into a trapping double-team as the guard fought over the pick. In this instance, Valanciunas and Bebe slipped the screen and darted unabaited to the basket, but DeRozan was either unable to see them or make a pass. In the 4th quarter, the Raptors guards, particularly Lowry, were able to sniff out this action a little bit quicker and sneak the ball out soon, creating a positive numbers mismatch with Golden State now having two defenders stuck up high, out of position. DeRozan was a solid passer throughout much of the Golden State game, putting up 6 assists, but he needs to learn to react to a wide-open big slipping a screen for a free layup when he’s attacked with a double-team 25 feet from the basket. If Phoenix also guards Lowry and DeRozan in this manner, as teams are more like to do with how ball dominants they’ve been and the recent success of the strategy, this is a good opportunity for the Raptors to try and improve on it.

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