Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Suns, Dec. 13

The last long road trip of the season ends.

There are two ways to look at a game against a pretty bad team, coming on the heels of a loss to another pretty bad team. On the one hand, it offers a pretty easy palate-cleanser, a high-percentage opportunity to shake off that loss and get right back into the win column, feeling a little better. On the other, it offers the risk of dropping back-to-back games against lesser competition, which could potentially be a threat to a team’s momentum and psyche. Realistically, this scenario probably doesn’t mean that much since teams are conditioned to take a longer view over 82 games.

The Toronto Raptors find themselves in such a situation Wednesday, visiting the Phoenix Suns after just losing an ugly game to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was among Toronto’s worst losses of the season, and they’d surely love to put a pounding on an overmatched Suns team – on the second night of a back-to-back – and then head home with a 3-1 record on their final four-game road-trip of the season. Lose to the Suns, though, thus splitting the the trip and being left with only the most tenuous of excuses, and things could be a little tense back in Toronto over the weekend against two more sub-.500 opponents.

In their favor, the Raptors starters have been playing much better of late. That bodes well for their chances of coming out and establishing the scene for the game right out of the gate. On paper, this could be a blowout, and the Raptors squandered a chance to put the Suns away early just last week, leaving just 29 seconds of garbage time. Malcolm Miller deserves to make his NBA debut at some point on a four-game trip against all bad teams, you know? It should be a better Raptors team here than on Monday. And if not, it’ll be a long flight home.

The game tips off at 9 on TSN and Sportsnet 590.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Rod Argent of Bright Side of the Sun who was kind enough to help us out. Or rather, I reached out to him last week. Not a lot has changed in a week, but just to be sure, I touched base with Rod before running back last week’s questions. (Italicized notes are from me.)

Blake Murphy: So, anything new since last Tuesday?

Rod Argent: With Devin Booker out it will be interesting to see how rookie Josh Jackson – the probable starting SG for the Suns – fares trying to guard DeMar DeRozan for an extended period of time. It will be good experience for Jackson though. Hopefully, he will at least make DeRozan work hard for his money.

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?

Note: Monroe started against the Raptors and had a double-double, though Jonas Valanciunas did a pretty nice job in his minutes opposite him. The Suns have been rotating their center rotation around, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Tyson Chandler or even Alex Len start opposite Valanciunas here.

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?

Note: Bender was, uhh, not good against the Raptors, going scoreless with one rebound in 13 minutes. He was a minus-9.

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?

Note: Dudley played 25 minutes against the Raptors and was a plus-5 in a 13-point loss. The question proved prescient. It’s also the most minutes Dudley’s played all year, so I’m not sure a repeat performance should be expected.

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?

Note: The Suns waived Derrick Jones Jr. and converted James’ two-way contract to an NBA deal last week.

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.

Raptors updates
The Raptors were off yesterday following a back-to-back, so there won’t be any relevant updates until shootaround at the earliest. Even then, Delon Wright and Lucas Nogueira are both listed as out once again. It’s tough to know how close they’re drawing without much practice time on this trip, but a weekend at home should give some clue as to when to expect them back on the court. Until then, I’m sure you’ve got a pretty good sense of what the rotation looks like, though Dwane Casey’s patience with the all-bench group might be wearing thin enough to warrant some more aggressive staggering.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Malcolm Miller
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl
OUT: Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: None
905: Bruno Caboclo

Suns updates
The big change since last week is that Devin Booker suffered a strained left adductor muscle against the Raptors, and he’s expected to miss a couple of weeks. That’s a huge loss for Phoenix, as Booker was their primary creator and their best shot-maker by a wide margin. More offensive load will shift to T.J. Warren now, and the point guards will be leaned on for more traditional playmaking loads. Josh Jackson has started in Booke’s place, scoring 26 points over the last three games. Phoenix also picked up Danuel House on a two-way contract with the spot cleared by converting Mike James into an NBA deal, clearly impressed by his performance against Raptors 905 the morning the Suns visited Toronto.

The Suns are on the second night of a back-to-back, and Warren played 39 minutes on Tuesday. Nobody else topped 32, so Phoenix probably won’t need to manage anyone’s minutes too closely here. It’s worth noting that Tyson Chandler started with Alex Len off the bench against Sacramento, and their center rotation will likely see Greg Monroe draw in again here (with Chandler possibly getting the night off, as he did last time).

PG: Tyler Ulis, Mike James
SG: Josh Jackson, Troy Daniels
SF: T.J. Warren, Jared Dudley, Danuel House
PF: Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender
C: Greg Monroe, Alex Len, Tyson Chandler
OUT: Brandon Knight, Davon Reed, Alan Williams, Devin Booker
TBD: None
Northern Arizona: Alec Peters

The line
The Raptors were 13.5-point favorites at home last week. They’re 11.5-point favorites here, which is a very big line for a road team. The over-under is at 217.5.

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