Gameday: Raptors @ Suns, Nov. 2

Western conference road trips are usually tough no matter who you face. Battling time zone changes, longer travel hours, and less practice time is just plain hard for any Eastern conference NBA team. Having said that, the Raptors, who are 7-1, clearly pose a stiff test for any team in the league. And even the toughest of West coast trips usually include a gimme game or two. And for Toronto – tonight just may be one of those nights.

As the last place team in the West, at 1-6 and having lost 6 in a row, the Phoenix Suns are, to put it lightly … in a transition phase. Coming off an off-season that included the oddly-timed firing of GM Ryan McDonough, inking their young star to a long-term contract, and the drafting of local hero and Arizona phenom DeAndre Ayton at first overall … the Suns, while interestingly endowed with talent, just aren’t in the same league as everyone else in the NBA right now. As the sixth worst offensive team, and the third worst defensive team, the Suns are just plain awful on both sides of the ball. Devin Booker still leads the team in scoring, with the rookie Ayton notching just under 17 a game as well, to go along with 10 boards. Booker is listed as questionable for tonight, though Suns GM James Jones expects that he will play.

With their only loss of the season coming to Milwaukee on the road earlier in the week, the Raptors come into Pheonix with two days of rest, and off of a solid win against Philly on Tuesday night. Kawhi Leonard is set to play his first road game as a Raptor, getting the benefit of a home-heavy schedule to begin the season, and guaranteed rest on one half of both home and road back-to-backs thus far this season. Leonard’s impact on the early season has been undeniable. The 2014 Finals MVP has been simply sensational on both ends of the floor, averaging over 27 points a game, shooting over 50% from the field, and with the 10th best net rating in the league. Combine that with Lowry’s scorching hot shooting and consistent dime-dropping (Lowry’s 11.1 assists a game lead the league right now) … and you’ve got an awesome team.

Complacency is what the Raptors should be trying to avoid all season. And that means taking care of the winnable games – and using them to build better habits. Despite their strong on-ball defense on the wings, and solid coverage of the pick-and-roll, the Raptors are allowing the fourth worst 3-point percentage in the league (38.3%), meaning they’re giving up good looks to passing offenses. Not to mention, they’re also relinquishing 13 offensive rebounds a night, giving up valuable extra possessions after having played good defense to begin with. The higher pace and scoring that has pervaded the NBA has seemed to favour Toronto overall, but of course…the sample size is still pretty small.

Tonight’s game info:

Time: 10 pm EST

Venue: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

TV: Sportsnet ONE

Projected starting lineups:

  • Toronto: Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka
  • Phoenix: Elie Okobo, Josh Jackson, Trevor Ariza, T.J. Warren, DeAndre Ayton

With the Raptors going up against a more traditionally built centre in DeAndre Ayton tonight, it’ll be interesting to see how coach Nick Nurse will manage his front court lineup, which has generally been small thus far, as compared to Dwane Casey’s Ibaka/JV pairing strategy to start games last season. And rebounding, the usual concern when the Raptors go small, may not be a problem tonight as the Suns are 28th in the league in rebounds per game, and 24th in overall rebound percentage. Nonetheless, DeAndre Ayton is an extremely talented interior presence, who has already starting to show signs of a pure post game. And the Suns sure are feeding him – according to Synergy Sports, they’re feeding him for the most post-ups per game by an individual player in the league so far this season (5.7 per game). And for good reason, as Ayton is shooting 87% on shots within 4 feet of the rim. Aside from Ayton however, the Suns simply don’t have any other offensive answers with Devin Booker out of the lineup, and likely can’t keep up with any lineup the Raptors may choose to throw out.

The Raptors’ best 5-man lineups this season have included some combination of Lowry, Leonard, Green, Siakam and either Ibaka and JV at the 5. So while the big man decision is important from the perspective of defending Ayton, it may not matter for all other intents and purposes. The combination of Lowry and Leonard has been red hot this season, with Siakam and Green providing all the requisite defensive energy on the wing to be a lethal lineup. In fact, when looking at the best 2-man lineups in the league (in terms of net rating), 3 of the first 4 lineups include some combination of Lowry, Leonard, Siakam and Green. Simply put, those guys are balling out.

Another interesting point to note will be the play of OG Anunoby, who has returned to the Raptors after taking a personal leave for the past 3 games to be with his family. It’ll be a welcome sight for the Raptors, who have been playing shorthanded of late, with Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright all missing early season games in addition to Kawhi’s rest games. It’s put Nick Nurse in a bit of a tough spot, forcing him to be creative in extended bench lineups featuring more Norm Powell, CJ Miles, and even Lorenzo Brown – but expect some more normalcy tonight, with Anunoby hopefully settling back into his normal rotation spot.

With LeBron and the Lakers looming on Sunday night, the Raptors will have to take advantage against the lowly Suns tonight, and get their road trip off to a winning start. Things won’t get any easier for Toronto after that, as a back-to-back on Monday night against the Jazz awaits (which Kawhi is likely to sit out), followed up by a Wednesday night contest against the Kings in Sacramento. The road trip isn’t exactly travel-efficient (it consists of two separate trips to each of the Pacific and Mountain time zones) and will be Toronto first road-stamina test of the season. So while the newly minted Scotiabank Arena has been friendly to the Raptors so far this season, it’s time to see if all the early-season magic will now travel on the road.

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