2-0 to start the west coast swing, and the second came against the team with the league’s best record.
Chris Paul was gone, and that’s meaningful, but if Raptors fans understand anything it’s how a team with a consistent and excellent culture and framework can continue to steamroll with important players gone. The Suns have that culture, they have that framework. It required big performances from places where they haven’t exactly been coming lately, and at the end of it all they found enough offense, enough defense, and enough gumption to beat Phoenix to the finish line.
Starting off with Gary Trent Jr. – the man regained a form that eluded him for a prolonged stretch, and it came at a time that it was very necessary. The trademark ball pressure of the Phoenix Suns guards was successful in moving Fred VanVleet away from some of the more successful aspects of his game. When they switched bigs or wings onto him, the regular punch of a fully healthy VanVleet wasn’t exactly there (injuries tend to linger), and that moved the Raptors off of some of their favorite looks on offense. Trent Jr., with heavy assistance from Siakam, led the offensive charge and did so with aplomb.
“He had some better looks tonight.” Nick Nurse said of Trent Jr. “But, he also got into his – it didn’t really matter if they were great looks or not – situation, creating some space, making some covered shots. He hit some really big, timely ones there along the baseline, and then we ran a little OB (out of bounds) play out of the timeout and he made a 3 ball. Those were two huge ones when we were having a tough time in the 4th, obviously, after really rolling through the third scoring wise.” Nurse continued: “We were having a tough time getting buckets, and he a hit a couple big ones. Huge game for him.”
The set shot, the catch and shoot viability that’s been evading Trent Jr. since the All-Star Break returned in full form. A brilliant 8-11 performance from beyond the arc that started with a humble shot diet, but ended with adventurous off the dribble stabs at greatness was everything the Raptors needed in this game. Sure, there was a refereeing spectacle regarding where Trent Jr.’s hands go after he shoots – in this game, as it turned out, his hand goes downward, swiftly towards Cam Payne’s head – but Trent Jr. gave the Raptors 42 points on incredible efficiency. By his lonesome, he spun a classic and gave the Raptors over a third of their points.
“I haven’t really considered myself a shooter. I feel like I’m a scorer that can shoot.” Trent Jr. said regarding his breakout of the slump. “But, you know, it’s great. Obviously, when your shot is falling you’re gonna have some highs, you’re gonna have some lows. Stay consistent, stay working on your craft, stay believing in yourself and everything will take care of itself.”
This is an interesting comment from Trent Jr., and speaks to where he wants to improve as a player. Few of his colleagues in the NBA are more reliant on their jumper for their points. Trent Jr. is below the 20th-percentile in both how often he gets to the rim, and how well he finishes there. It’s even more feast or famine if you take away the transition attempts. However, Trent Jr. has no doubt stretched his legs moreso this year as a driver, and as a passer. We’re sitting at a point where Trent Jr. has nothing to point to, to suggest that he can score well without his jumper. But, he’s also a second round pick who has willed himself into one of the NBA’s elite shooters before the age of 24. I’m sure there’s steps yet to be made from him as a scorer without the jumper. It should be interesting to see if he can turn his reality, into everyone else’s.
For his part, Siakam was a perfect collaborator with Trent Jr.’s scoring outburst. Less bothered by the Suns length, and still commanding a lot of attention, he pressured the interior of the Suns defense often enough to open up his teammates for shot after shot. Chief among those open shooters? Our star performer, Trent Jr.
“Man, it’s great. When Freddy’s out there, the player he is, the talent he is, he gets a lot of attention. The same with Siakam, same with Scottie, OG when he’s out there.” Trent Jr. said after the win against the Suns. “You know, everybody kind of complements eachother, in a sense, when we’re all out there. So, it’s great to have him back, and I’m glad he’s back.”
To be fair though, Trent Jr.’s offensive heroics would have been all for nothing if the Raptors didn’t come through on the defensive end.
The Phoenix Suns are the NBA’s best team in the clutch, and the Raptors outdid them during it. The blitzes they threw at them on defense – and Khem Birch’s insertion into the lineup – allowed the Raptors to generate turnovers and breathe life into their offense late. This has failed the Raptors before – the blitzing, the traps. Stars, like Trae Young have split the middle and delivered wide open shots for teammates. Simple reads can create layups when the defense gambles. But, in this game they found the right timing and the gumption to bring the Suns offense low.
Trent Jr. played his part in both facets of the game. When VanVleet and Birch blitzed Booker to the sideline 45 feet away from the basket, his outlet was Payne and Trent Jr. contained the ball before the eventual turnover. He played pressure defense on Booker for most of the game. It was a complete performance, and it goes against what Trent Jr. said earlier. He’s not a scorer who can shoot, he’s a basketball player who can shoot. Capable of many things on a court, and as we’ve learned more and more this season, they correlate with winning.
Have a blessed day.