Raptors grind out an ugly win over Phoenix to cap road trip

Not the prettiest.

The Toronto Raptors put together another frustrating game two days after the Los Angeles Clippers debacle, grinding out a win against the lowly Phoenix Suns, 115-109.

Toronto largely played like a team that was well-aware of Phoenix’s league-worst D-Rtg and approached the game as such. They were confident in their ability to put up enough buckets to get the win instead of putting together a full effort defensively.

Questions will linger about the bench’s ability now too. They were thrashed in second and especially the fourth quarter, forcing the starters to do heavy lifting despite carving out decent leads.

DeMar DeRozan was incredible, cooking all defenders to score 37 points. Jonas Valanciunas played well, finishing around the rim and handling his business on the glass. JV had 20 points and 11 rebounds, a double-double that ties him with Antonio Davis for second-most in the history of the franchise.

Toronto started out hot offensively. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan knifed through the Phoenix defence, forcing rotations and finding open teammates. This led to a bunch of open looks for Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, who combined for 18 of the 37 first quarter points.

DeRozan exploited the young and undersized backcourt, using Lowry as the screener on the wing when he brought the ball down court. This resulted in awkward switches, where Tyler Ulis – generously listed at 5-10 – tried to handle DeRozan with a bit of speed. The simple play gave Toronto easy opportunities against an already-bad defence.

Instead of pulling away early, the Raptors played indifferently on defence. Phoenix’s bench played with a ton of energy and exploited a struggling Toronto bench unit, especially on the glass. The second quarter was littered with stretches of rebounds tipped around under the Raptors rim.

These are the plays that kill the bench unit. An inability to quickly secure a rebound a pitch ahead to a guard limits what they’re best at: playing in transition. For the bench mob to get back on track, they’ve got to force misses and cleanly grab rebounds. If they played better, Toronto could have had a significant lead at the half.

The third quarter seemed like it would be time for Toronto to figure things out. Lowry was all business showed that intensity, the kind where runs to his spot, takes the ball aggressively and gets to the next play because he wants to change the game.

Most importantly: DeRozan took over. He danced his way to the buckets that you can describe as easy, but they’re really only easy for DeRozan. Few players score in the way he does anymore.

Toronto’s bench squandered DeRozan’s effort, though. Troy Daniels banged two threes as a part of a 12-0 Suns run to turn a 92-79 into a three-point game. Norm Powell and C.J. Miles are culpable here. Powell can’t hit shots right now.

He’s driving to the rim but the defences are in tact when he does it. Finishing around rim protection with a guy contesting in the rearview is a really tough skill and Norm doesn’t have it yet. And the problem with Miles is that he takes really quick threes. At half, he said the bench needs to find easier shots to get them going. He’s right, so why take off-balance threes then?

Regardless, Toronto took a timeout and put in Ibaka, then Lowry shortly after, to guide the bench back to safety. When Casey made the swap, all of the Raptors bench players were negative in the +/- column. Despite the substitutions, Phoenix hung around. Toronto’s offence sputtered down the stretch, as it has all season.

Time after time, Toronto ran a pick and roll with JV as the screener and Lowry or DeRozan handling the ball. Those situations are just a hope that the ball handler can turn the corner on their guy or hit a contested look. They’re rarely going to pass to JV and the other guys are standing still.

Toronto did enough to win but only because Phoenix is young and struggles to execute down the stretch. The bad news is that there’s still some concerns with the bench. You can’t get handled by this Suns team for extended periods of time and not walk away a bit concerned. The good news is that they got a win, and the road trips are largely in the rearview mirror.

As the broadcast noted, Toronto will not travel beyond the central time zone for the remainder of the season. At 18-8 with the difficult part of the schedule taken care of, look past these disappointing games and take the long view. The Raptors are in a good spot, all things considered.

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