Toronto Raptors shorten rotation in comeback against Phoenix Suns

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The 43-18 Toronto Raptors may have only just squeaked by the 24-38 Phoenix Suns, 123-114, but not all encouraging wins have to come in the form of blowouts. In fact, Toronto’s victory ended a three-game slide, corrected a mini-slump for Pascal Siakam, and had all sorts of other positive vibes and side-effects.

Most importantly, Siakam got back on track, scoring 33 points on 20 shots. He shot five-of-nine from deep, which is important, but really just the cherry on top of his game. During his last few games, more critical than long-range shooting have been Siakam’s limitations scoring inside the arc. Over the three-game losing streak, Siakam shot 14-of-37, or 37.8 percent, from two-point range. He couldn’t get his shoulders past defenders on drives, and many of his patented floating, hanging layups looked more like desperation heaves at the rim from awkward angles. Against Phoenix, though, he was terrific inside the arc. He shot seven-of-11 there. He scored in transition, euro-stepping around hapless pylons. He scored as the roller out of ball screens, swooping towards the rim after Kyle Lowry passes. He scored in the post and from the perimeter. It was a masterclass from Siakam in scoring a variety of ways, picking his spots, and leveraging the fact that no single Sun could guard him.

Siakam was far from the only efficient scorer for Toronto. Lowry dialed back the clock and scored 28 points on 18 shots. He was unbelievably aggressive, not letting an elbow to the eye from Terence Davis stop him from wrecking the Suns’ best-laid plans. Lowry hit step-back triples, floating layups, and everything in-between. Norman Powell didn’t shoot well from beyond the arc, but he remained electric otherwise. He hasn’t let multiple medium-term injuries hamper what is clearly his breakout season. He took anyone he wanted off the dribble, getting to the rim at will, and finishing with deft layups. At one point, he pushed in transition against all five Suns and forced a foul by outrunning every opponent. He fought his way to nine free throw attempts, which is the most since his rookie season.

Chris Boucher was perhaps the most surprising Toronto performer on the offensive end. After Nick Nurse questioned the recent performance of his bench players, Boucher seemed to be the only one to get the memo. He collected six offensive rebounds, and it could have been more were it not for a few close offensive interference calls. He attacked the boards with abandon, using his length to finish over opponents who didn’t bother to block out. He also hit two big triples on the night, one of which came late in the fourth to practically seal the game. Boucher finished with 19 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.

The Raptors didn’t get much from a huge portion of their roster, including one combined point from Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Terence Davis. None of the three were effective, and Davis in particular committed a few ghastly errors, including getting stripped on the perimeter and air-balling a step-back triple that came outside of the flow of the offense. That’s alright. Toronto was forced to play, for all intents and purposes, a six-man rotation because of the variety of injuries, but if the team ever gets healthy, Thomas, Hollis-Jefferson, and Davis are much better deployed with fewer responsibilities and more talent around them. The team will be much better able to survive limited offensive contribution from the bench when the starters are healthy; in fact, Powell should return to the bench, where his scoring will go a long way towards solving that roster imbalance issue.

Defensively, there were some bright spots and some real flaws. Fortunately, the flaws were really only related to player availability, but we’ll get there in a minute. Let’s start with some positives.

With no actual centers available in the game, Siakam and Boucher morphed into twin rim protectors, collecting help-side blocks above the rim. They both did excellent jobs running shooters off the line, contesting shots from behind the arc, and switching across the court. With Siakam’s role so large on the offensive end, his defensive focus and effort were particularly impressive.

OG Anunoby too was wonderful on the defensive end. Asked to guard a throwback center in Deandre Ayton with real back-to-the-basket chops, Anunoby contained him excellently, limiting Ayton to 13 points on 14 shots attempts. Ayton also only collected four offensive rebounds, which seems like a lot, but was really a small number considering his massive size and weight advantage over every player on Toronto’s available player list. Anunoby switched between every player on the Suns, often going from Ayton to Devin Booker back to Ayton again in the same possession. He was focused and delivered, which makes the third game in a row that Anunoby has been a defensive force.

If Toronto had such defensive positives, how then did Phoenix score 114 points against ostensibly one of the best defensive teams in the league? For one, Phoenix shot 15-of-39 from deep, good for an excellent 38.5 percent. Furthermore, before Toronto unleashed the twin-hydra of Siakam and Boucher, there was really no rim protection in the game whatsoever. In fact, Boucher didn’t get into the game in the second quarter; not coincidentally, the Suns scored 39 points in the first quarter. Over the 25 minutes that Boucher and Siakam shared the court, Toronto enjoyed a defensive rating of 87.9. In other words, Toronto’s defense was just fine when it had the appropriate players on the floor. Again, it will be much easier to maneuver the appropriate players on the floor, and much more sustainable over 48 minutes, when the team is healthy.

So Toronto bounced back in a big way, even if the game was, on the surface, surprisingly close. But the elements that broke poorly for Toronto were relatively unimportant in the long-term, while the sources of success were critical. Put another way, Siakam and Lowry playing well, even against a fairly poor defense, is far more significant than H0llis-Jefferson or Davis playing poorly. As a result, Toronto righted the ship. Just in time, with VanVleet and Ibaka telling local reporters who traveled with the team that they’re hoping to play on Thursday in the Finals rematch against the Golden State Warriors. It’s funny how one solid win can make a whole whack of ostensible problems vanish over the course of one evening.

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