Last night, the Toronto Raptors fanbase by and large stayed up late for a 10:30 tip, hoping their team would be able to steal a victory on the road from the Golden State Warriors. That didn’t happen. The Raptors staked the league’s best team to a 25-point lead early on, then spent the remainder of the game valiantly clawing to try to come back. They fell short, the game was fun, lessons were learned, and so on. As far as an 82-game schedule goes, it was one of the five or six biggest nights of the year.
Thursday night is not that.
The Raptors will look to avoid the hangover of exhausting themselves in defeat as they make a quick trip to Phoenix for the second night of a back-to-back. Not only will they be tired, there’s a chance they lack a certain juice, given that the Phoenix Suns come in at 9-23, in the bottom 10 in both offense and defense, and having dropped six of their last seven. They were also summarily blown out in San Antonio on Wednesday, something that’s happened a lot lately (five of those six losses have been by double-figures). The Raptors have shown they won’t be caught napping by lesser opponents, at least not for too long, and this should be a nice psychological test to see how they respond to a tough loss with an inferior opponent rather than, say, the automatic energy provided by both legs of a Cleveland-Golden State back-to-back.
And for a team that’s so plainly bad, on paper and in execution, the Suns sure do have a lot of likeable players, or at least guys with some nice upside or trade value. Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, and Jared Dudley should both be attractive to contending teams if they hit the market, T.J. Warren could keep developing into a great scoring sixth-man type, Eric Bledsoe is fun when healthy, and at least one of the rookie power forwards should work out. (Miss me with Brandon Knight, though.) There are pieces, but ownership needs to accept that their acceleration a couple of years back was premature, slow things down a bit, and look ahead to a couple of years down the line instead of constantly tricking themselves into pushing for the eighth seed.
Casey, "If we think this is going to be a walk in the park we're kidding ourselves" re: facing Suns #SunsVsRaptors
— Craig Grialou (@CraigAZSports) December 30, 2016
For tonight, though, they’re a struggling team that’s also on the second night of a back-to-back, and they’re a team the Raptors should come out swinging against, trying to put them down early and emphatically.
The game tips off at 9 p.m. on TSN 2 and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.
With a back-to-back situation on their hands, DeMarre Carroll is likely to sit this one out. Head coach Dwane Casey has talked about that restriction being lifted at some indeterminate point, but until that’s the case, we’re left to assume that Carroll’s not playing back-to-back games. And that’s completely fine – not only are there no playoff back-to-backs for which Carroll really needs to get ready, but every Carroll rest day is another opportunity for Norman Powell to capably slide into the starting lineup and make the latest in his long lists of on-court cries for a larger role in the rotation. (Even last night, Powell played seven effective minutes and never saw the floor again.)
UPDATE: Carroll is starting, per Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun. This is surprising, but Casey’s been saying the restriction could be lifted. It will be interesting to see how he looks and how many minutes he plays. The guess here is he doesn’t go much further than 20, but I have no idea if there’s an actual limit on it. In terms of games to lift the restrictions, the Suns seem an odd opponent to try it against, but this decision likely has little to do with the matchup and everything to do with the sport science staff’s long-term plan for Carroll. It’s a positive that he’s ready for this step and it speaks to the health and strength of this knee.
As for Powell, there will still be opportunities. There will be nights off for guys. There will be injuries, hopefully only minor. There will be games Carroll or Ross don’t have it, and Powell’s needed. And there will be times the Raptors go smaller, effectively shifting some of Siakam’s minutes (or another big’s minutes) to Powell. He’s a wonderful luxury to have, and while he’s in a tough spot as a 10th man deserving of a larger role, he’ll take the right attitude and be ready when needed.
How the Raptors will handle the Phoenix matchup is really up to Casey, as he has a fair number of options. This figures to be a game that Pascal Siakam sees more time in (he’s totalled just 18 minutes over the last three games), both because the Suns’ power forwards are players he should be able to help contain and because without Carroll, the Raptors aren’t quite as able to go small for long stretches (although for the millionth time, more Lowry-Joseph/DeRozan-Ross-Powell lineups, they are my life force).
Wow, interesting starting lineup graphic for the Raptors tonight. pic.twitter.com/zxXAV5B8WH
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) December 30, 2016
If Powell starts, he’ll almost surely get the Devin Booker assignment, chasing the sophomore around screens and off of the 3-point line. Eric Bledsoe is a physical challenge for Toronto’s guards and could get Ross or Powell thrown on him with mixed units, freeing Kyle Lowry or Cory Joseph to guard a Brandon Knight or Leandro Barbosa. Again, there are a lot of different ways Casey can choose to approach this matchup, because the Suns aren’t all that scary and the Raptors can choose to play the game on their own terms.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross
PF: Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
OUT: Delon Wright, Jared Sullinger
The Suns enter completely healthy, somewhat of a rarity for them over the last few seasons. That doesn’t mean things are straightforward in the rotation, as finding the right role for Knight continues to be a challenge, P.J. Tucker and T.J. Warren have traded the starting small forward spot, and it now appears Dragan Bender has jumped Jared Dudley in the rotation, at least temporarily. Head coach Earl Watson is still figuring things out, massaging, tinkering, and you’d think as the season goes along things will tilt further and further toward youth.
Watson, "It is what it is" re: Dudley reduced minutes; "Everyone's all right. We all live a nice life." #SunsVsRaptors
— Craig Grialou (@CraigAZSports) December 30, 2016
That’s not the case just yet, which means Tucker starts and likely draws the DeRozan assignment, while Tyson Chandler mans the pivot as a nice challenge to the pick-and-roll offense, particularly if the Suns want to trap Toronto ball-handlers aggressively. Chandler isn’t quite the rim protector he was in the past, but he remains an effective defender when engaged and a strong rebounder, presenting a matchup the Raptors will need Jonas Valanciunas to play at least to a draw (he could probably use the confidence boost of a major win, too).
The consistent lineup tinkering has made it difficult to surmise Phoenix’s best lineups, but it is perhaps telling that three of their five most commonly used lineups have a double-digit negative in net rating. There have been some highly successful small-sample looks – Alex Len at the four with the starters has been confusingly effective in a tiny amount of time, and Tucker/Warren sharing time with the starters as combo-forwards has been a quality look – but Phoenix very much remains in “still figuring it out” mode. That makes them hard to predict but also tough to get too frightened by, strictly from a matchups perspective.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyler Ulis
SG: Devin Booker, Leandro Barbosa, John Jenkins
SF: P.J. Tucker, T.J. Warren
PF: Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Jared Dudley
C: Tyson Chandler, Alex Len, Alan Williams
Assigned: Derrick Jones Jr. (perhaps the best dunker in the D-League right now)
- Last night, DeMar DeRozan became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. He’s now just 62 minutes from passing Chris Bosh for the most floor time as a Raptor, too, and he already owns the franchise record for games played. In other words, he’s deserved the NBA mixtape treatment.
— NBA (@NBA) December 29, 2016
The Raptors are 8.5-point favorites, even touching Raptors -9 at some points. On the road. On the second night of a multi-timezone back-to-back. On the fourth game of a six-game trip. Yes, Phoenix was on the road last night too, but that’s among the bigger cross-zone road SEGABABA lines I can remember seeing outside of the league’s elite teams. It speaks to how well Toronto’s played lesser opposition, and maybe just to how bad Phoenix has been. The takeaway? The Raptors have nobody to blame but themselves if they drop this one. The over-under has jumped from 221 to 224 throughout the day.
Raptors 113, Suns 102