Superstar: DeMar DeRozan snapped. The Suns could not guard him whatsoever and he scored at will, especially in the third quarter when he scored 18 points. DeRozan was just relentless in attacking the rim, as he consistently gained separation off the high screen. He also drilled some clutch free throws. DeRozan picked up the slack for Kyle Lowry to ensure the Raptors came out on top.
It could be the competition, it could be the matchups, it could be that the Raptors bigs have enjoyed some Vitamin D on the road in California and Arizona, but Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka have been playing some of their best basketball lately. Against the Suns they played together – even in the fourth quarter! – just to add to the overall weirdness. The lines: Ibaka was 8-of-11 from the floor with 13 rebounds, a block and a perfect 3-for-3 from deep for 21 points in one of his most complete games as a Raptor, while Valanciunas was 7-of-12 with 11 rebounds and – yes – a triple in his only attempt for 20 points, a worthy follow up to his 23-and-15 showing against the Clippers.
But it wasn’t just the numbers, it was the presence. The Raptors went big and played big – leading the Suns in rebounding, points in the paint and second-chance points. Valanciunas is looking as bouncy as he has since pre-season. He stole a page from Jakob Poeltl’s book with some nimble feet on a really nice middle pick-and-roll he ran with Lowry in the third quarter and crashed the glass hard on a crucial possession in the final minute after setting the screen that forced Suns centre Greg Monroe to leave him and guard DeMar DeRozan on the perimeter. He was fouled and made a free throw to make it a two-possession game.
Ibaka looks like a different player of late. Lots of energy, hustle plays and beautiful lift on his jumpers. Not sure if playing both of them down the stretch is a long-term strategy for success, but each of them earned those minutes Wednesday night.
Phoenix threw the first, second and third punches of the bench units in this one, and added a few kicks too. It wasn’t pretty.
The Toronto starters weren’t nearly as dominant in the fourth, though, as the offence predictably again bogged down into one-man shows.
But Lowry — yes, the same struggling point guard who has not been at his best on this trip — coolly sank a long three-pointer with just under three minutes remaining to give his team a bit of breathing room.
Lowry said he isn’t sure why he’s been quiet following a torrid shooting stretch, but didn’t seem the least bit concerned with this mini-slump.
“I don’t know, I’ve got to figure it out, I’ll be fine, I’ll figure it out,” Lowry said.
“I’m going to keep shooting though,” he added with a smile.
Toronto improved to 18-8, the second-best start through 26 games in franchise history and swept the season series with the Suns for the first time in five years.
“We needed all 37 (of DeRozan’s points),” Casey said.
The Raptors were scheduled to fly back to Toronto Thursday in advance of Friday’s home game against Brooklyn.
Casey said Ibaka, who had 21 points and 13 rebounds, is becoming more comfortable with his place in Toronto’s new offensive system.
“He’s getting a better feel for what we are trying to do offensively. I think the first few games like all of the guys was kind of a deer in headlights. ‘How do I get my shots, where do I get my shots?’” Casey said. “Serge is kind of like DeMar and Kyle in getting a rhythm within what we are trying to do.”
Casey credited Ibaka’s activity on the glass — including his three offensive rebounds — as a key to Wednesday’s win.
“He was quick to the ball. He had three offensive rebounds, kept it alive. I thought his rebounding was superb,” Casey said. “And I think that’s something we need to make more of, because we need it. We need it as much as we do scoring. And I thought he gave it to us. He was bouncy. He had a pep in his step on the boards.”
Ditto Valanciunas, who, Casey said, has also been playing better defensively of late.
The bench differences allowed the Suns to hang around for long stretches of the game, as a strong Raptors start was again mitigated by a complete lack of offense from their bench. Most frustrating of those players was Norman Powell, who appears lost on the basketball court during this road trip.
Powell was 0-for-6 with two turnovers tonight, again driving to the basket without a plan, tossing up layups at impossible angles. He was a -14 in ten minutes, and after initially settling into a role as bench creator, he appears unable to do what the bench needs from him. Fred VanVleet is too small to be an every-possession downhill player — and teams are wiser to defending his game now — and Powell will need to make layups (or even drive to pass).
Powell’s struggles showed most in the second quarter, when he missed three layups and fouled a three-point shooter to allow a Suns run, narrowing the Raptors lead to 43-42. A pair of VanVleet turnovers made matters worse, but Dwane Casey responded well — staggering in minutes for DeMar DeRozan to grab some attention on the offensive end. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to keep a talent-dry Suns team at bay.
The second half was similar, as the Raptors gained a lead with the starters, and gave it up toward the end of the third quarter. Down the stretch in the fourth quarter, the team struggled to control penetration from Daniels and T.J. Warren (Lowry had an unimpressive night on defense) but were able to ride big minutes from their starters to hold on to the win. Ibaka, Lowry, and DeRozan all played over 34 minutes; Valanciunas played 30, nearing his season-high from the season opener vs. Chicago.
So, now the Raptors can return home. Nothing about this road trip inspired confidence. The Memphis game had a nice finish, but the Kings and Suns wins were mediocre, and the Clippers loss was obviously a bummer. Maybe, it’s just part of a very long NBA season, and a lack of motivation in a soft part of the schedule. In the end, it doesn’t have to be pretty, as an 18-8 record speaks for itself.
The Suns have no defensive stopper. When most teams face Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, they can juggle their best defender between the two depending on who is hotter and how the rest of the lineup breaks defensively. Yet late in the third quarter when both guys got going, the Suns had nobody to sic on either guy. It’s a problem, especially when you drafted Josh Jackson to sort of be that guy.
In Episode 245 of Locked on Raptors, Sean Woodley provides a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of the Raptors 115-109 win over the Phoenix Suns as the game unfolds in real time.
DeMar DeRozan says the Raptors stayed composed in the fourth quarter and explains why he believes all the early road games this season have helped test the team.
The Raptors are finding out how shooting-starved they can be at times. Even with C.J. Miles and Fred VanVleet on the floor, the Raptors’ second-unit is still short on range. There were lots of jokes early in the season about the ability for the Raptors’ bench to go on 4-0 runs that took six minutes of play, but that is obviously not a sustainable way to win your minutes. Powell is counted on, more than any other bench player, to make something out of nothing, not unreasonable given his track record so far in his career. He has still got growing to do, though.
Like DeRozan, Powell is a tireless worker, so he should eventually add a little variety to his offensive game. The mid-range jumper is disdained in today’s NBA, but if Powell had it in his back pocket, some of his drives might not be so obvious. With a lack of options around him, he is hellbent on getting to the rim, and the opposition knows it.
Powell should figure this out. However, Wright is on his way back, and Miles is still playing fewer than 20 minutes per night — it is not as there is a lot of fat in his minutes to be cut. Powell has got to evolve on the fly, or he might be looking at more of the bench than he would like.
Raptors in a good place to see what its young guns can do
The Raptors are 8-2 this season when their marquee addition at the 2017 trade deadline scores 15 points or more. When Ibaka is rolling offensively, it gives the Raptors a bona fide third option ready to take advantage of the added attention defences pay to DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — at least one who is best suited to do so reliably, an issue at times for Ibaka himself earlier this season and since coming to Toronto.
The effect his improved scoring has had on the team is obvious. During the month of December, the team boasts a better offensive rating, and a dramatically-higher net rating when he’s on the floor compared to when he sits.
Beyond scoring, Ibaka is getting it done on the defensive end, too, where he’s always been expected to have a greater impact.
His natural position in today’s NBA may be at centre, where he doesn’t have to chase smaller forwards around the perimeter, forcing him further away from the basket (probably the best explanation for why his block numbers have been down since coming to Toronto). On a roster featuring Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl and, when healthy, Lucas Nogueira, he’ll have a hard time finding minutes at centre. No matter — Ibaka is thriving at the four as of late, looking the part of the impactful rim defender fans expected after watching him average 2.5 blocks during his first seven seasons and lead the league in the category twice as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In truth, Ibaka’s strong play dates back further than just this month.
Since sitting out the Raptors’ loss in New York vs. the Knicks on Nov. 17 with a swollen knee, Ibaka has been swatting away two shots per game, which puts him fourth in the NBA during that span, tied with two of the most impactful centres in the league in Joel Embiid and Clint Capella.
The 23-year-old VanVleet said he started his personal brand, complete with a stylish FVV logo that’s reminiscent of Vince Carter’s long-ago VC15 ensign, after he grew tired of spending money on designer streetwear from fancy foreign manufacturers.
“The way we live in the NBA, we spend a lot of money on stupid (stuff). If I’m going to buy a $1,000 T-shirt from Gucci, that’s 100 T-shirts I could make on my own,” VanVleet said. “The business is great. I’m just taking my time, going really slow. I don’t want to take too big of a loss, but most businesses lose in the first year, and I’m making a decent amount of money. It’s been going good for me.”
VanVleet’s on-court business is positively booming this year. Thanks to an injury to backup point guard Delon Wright, VanVleet, known for his dogged, high-IQ reliability, has emerged as a go-to option off the bench. He’s the six-foot engine that drives Toronto’s oft-heralded second unit.
Big picture, Toronto’s reserves have been one of the key stories of the team’s early-season success; the bench’s net rating — a combination of its offensive and defensive prowess — ranks third in the league behind the reserves from Houston and Golden State.
Considering how tough the schedule has been both in terms of the quality of opponents and the locations of the games, having the third-best record in the conference to this point has to be seen as a huge positive for the Raptors.
Plus, avoiding airplanes, bus rides and hotels so much during the second half of the season could be a major advantage as the dog days and then the playoffs approach, especially since the other top dogs of the East still have a bunch of trips remaining.
“Yeah, it’s weird, but I think it’s going to pay dividends in the long-term,” point guard Kyle Lowry said of the schedule.
“Of course you want to have a stretch where you go to L.A. when it’s super cold (in Toronto), but we got our blizzard a couple days ago, so we ducked that.
“I think we go to Chicago, we got Dallas, (Oklahoma City) and Minnesota left, but I think other than that, it will pay dividends not having to switch time zones and going back and forth. You lose an hour, you gain an hour, that’s about it.”
No, I don’t know precisely what’s going on with Norm Powell but, man, is he in a funk or what.
At times last night, he wavered between playing a bit out of control and a bit tentative, looking over his shoulder after every botched play as if he expected Miles or Anunoby or someone to be racing to the table to replace him.
On the four-game trip he had more turnovers (6) than baskets (4), he hasn’t made a three-pointer since the Indiana game on Dec. 1 in Toronto and he hasn’t attempted a free throw in three-games.
We’ve seen that he can get the job done so there’s no reason to think this is a permanent slump but a fair amount of the recent bench woes can be chalked up to the fact one key component is scuffling horribly.
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