Morning Coffee – Tue, Jan 31

OG out and on the block | Raptors can score now but not defend | Siakam is over worked

Raptors’ surging offence lets them down for costly half in Phoenix – The Athletic

The one constant of the Raptors’ offence, good and bad, is that it features few turnovers. It’s a byproduct of the Raptors playing a lot in isolation. That went away Monday, as the Suns bothered the Raptors in the paint consistently, resulting in a 114-106 loss. The Suns locked up the Raptors in the first half, playing with lots of length, and the Raptors had trouble getting into their sets. Combine that with a few too many rushed jumpers, the first time that has happened in a while, and a rough crunchtime and it was a rough outing for an attack that has been thriving.

Heading into Monday night’s game, per Cleaning the Glass, the team ranked seventh in half-court offence since Jan. 6, the game following their brick-throwing competition against the Bucks. Since then, VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., O.G. Anunoby and Chris Boucher are all shooting better than 39 percent from 3. They had all been well below that threshold before then. VanVleet and Barnes have also had the ball more; VanVleet leads with 7.2 assists per game, and Barnes trails Siakam (six per game) at 5.7.

For the season, the Raptors were up to 11th in offensive rating heading into Monday’s game.

Anecdotally, VanVleet and Barnes have had the ball in their hands more often in the past month. VanVleet’s pull-up 3s no longer feel like experiments. Barnes has at least an assist or two per game that make you stop in place. His vision has been unleashed. And VanVleet and Barnes’ chemistry in two-man actions, particularly with Barnes as a screener, has been excellent.

“The issues that kept the offence behind, first and foremost, were the shooting,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “That’s certainly improved, and a lot of that is related directly to health. It just is. Wasn’t much we could do about it — we were creating great shots (for) our best shooters, and they just couldn’t make ’em. But now they can. … Getting better at that. Getting better at our other positive offensive possessions off of stops, the screening, the passing, the cutting. We’re getting a lot more cutting baskets as well.”

Aesthetically, things are looking a lot better. Alas, given how they started, they are beyond taking anything from a good process that doesn’t yield results. They just don’t have time for that.

“It’s not time for us to try to take moral victories,” VanVleet said. “We need real victories.”

Raptors looking to regain momentum once again after loss to Suns – Sportsnet

In the early going the Suns followed their game plan well, and briefly, it looked the Raptors were going to be racking up big turnover totals. Toronto – the least turnover-prone team in the league – gave the ball away six times in the first, three of them by Scottie Barnes. Though, the second-year forward offset his mistakes with a steal of a pass that would have resulted in a dunk by Suns centre DeAndre Ayton, and later a block of Ayton at point-blank range too. The giveaways – four in the first 5:34 of the game — helped the Suns jump out to a 14-8 lead and their final turnover of the quarter resulted in a three by Miles Bridges – his third on three attempts put the Suns up 28-21. But a quick 7-0 Raptors spurt tied the game before a Chris Paul triple at the horn gave Phoenix a 31-28 lead to start the second quarter. Turnovers continued to be a problem as Toronto made five more in the second frame. Toronto also struggled from deep in the first quarter, shooting just 1-of-7 from deep in the opening 12 minutes and 4-of-13 for the half. The Suns on the other hand were on fire, shooting 8-of-16 as Bridges went off for 23 points in the first half and pushed Phoenix’s lead 62-53 to start the third quarter.

The Raptors took their first lead of the game with 10-0 run to start the second half that started with a three from Siakam and featured three straight pushes up the middle of the floor and into the Suns’ paint by VanVleet – two to score and the last to pitch out to Gary Trent Jr. for a three.

It was a microcosm of the resurgent Raptors’ offence of late. Their offensive rating over the past 11 games before Monday – a stretch in which they are 6-5 – was 121.5 points per 100 possessions, which placed them fourth in the NBA. Prior to that the Raptors were 19th in offensive rating and generating 112.4 points per 100 possessions.

“The issues that kept the offence behind, first and foremost, were the shooting, that’s certainly improved and a lot of that is related directly to health. It just is. Wasn’t much we could do about it, we were creating great shots by our best shooters, and they just couldn’t make ‘em but now they can,” said Nurse, by way of explanation, while adding:

“We score better in transition off our turnovers … getting better at that, getting better at our other positive offensive possessions off of stops, the screening, the passing, the cutting, we’re getting a lot more cutting baskets as well.

“Think there’s a number of things that are factoring in.”

Several of them were evident in the third as Toronto tidied up their turnovers and mostly pushed the pace with the ball, with VanVleet leading the way. He scored 10 points in the quarter and organized the Raptors’ attack. They didn’t make a turnover and forced five from the Suns to take an 84-82 lead into the fourth.

At that point Nurse went to an unusual lineup, playing Scottie Barnes with Juancho Hernangomez, Thad Young, Malachi Flynn and Chris Boucher. It was a risky way to preserve his starters’ legs, but he more or less got away with it. A pair of big threes by little-used Malachi Flynn helped, the second of which was set up by a steal and a diving recovery by 16-year veteran Young. With Siakam and VanVleet back on the floor to join Barnes, the Raptors were still leading with just over six minutes to play.

But even with his starters back in, the Raptors’ offence floundered, and Toronto heads to Salt Lake City looking for momentum again.

Big nights for Bridges, bench, carry Phoenix Suns over Toronoto Raptors – Valley of the Suns

Bridges was blowing it up early for Phoenix

If there was any concern about a slow start to the game against Toronto on Monday, Bridges made sure to put that concern to bed. Bridges scored a career-high 16 first-quarter points, scoring at the basket, on pull-ups, and going three-for-three from deep; Mikal was making it happen everywhere on the court.

Bridges did cool off after the incredible first quarter but still led all scorers with 29 points, including four big points late in the fourth quarter to help stretch the Suns’ lead and seal the victory. For Bridges, it was his second straight game with at least 25 points as he continues to step up for the Suns.

The Suns bench played a big part in beating Toronto

Bridges had the big game in the first half and helped build a lead for the Suns. In the second half, the bench coming on strong kept Phoenix in the game as the Raptors went on a run of their own.

After not leading in the first half, Toronto built a seven-point lead in the second half before the Suns’ bench made it anyone’s game. On a night when starters Torrey Craig and Cameron Johnson combined for six points, getting seven points from Ish Wainright was huge, as were the 11 points each from Damion Lee and Dario Saric.

In the fourth quarter, in a close game, two Saric buckets in the paint and a second-chance three from Lee were critical plays. On the evening, the Phoenix bench outscored the Raptors bench 38 to 15, making up for those off nights from Craig and Johnson.

Phoenix Suns get clutch with Mikal Bridges to beat Raptors – Arizona Sports

Now with the game in a do-or-die state for Toronto, down six and under a minute left, Scottie Barnes couldn’t hit a 3 and the contested rebound was grabbed by Cam Johnson, who made a few huge plays on that end in the latter stages.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s all five Suns starters who contributed to those moments.

Bridges’ 12-of-19 mark on the 29-point night included six assists, three steals and a block. Head coach Monty Williams turned to Bridges as the team’s point guard when Paul rested in the second quarter and Bridges made two ridiculous passes considering his experience level as “the guy” on the ball.

This is a direct take and smooth no-look feed.

And how about leading the receiver here like a quarterback?

Bridges’ crunch-time heroics make it two games in a row where he’s won the game as the go-to scorer late. To go back to the nearly identical sets part of that, that is something that Paul and Booker do all the time.

Paul will go to one play design, see success with it and run the same thing to death with small variations here and there. But when Paul is calling that out now, he’s doing so for Bridges, a hard to believe statement.

“He and Chris knew we couldn’t run the same play, then they went a different route,” Williams said of it. “Same kind of play but just took a different route and he came off and got another good opportunity for us. That’s the maturation that you look for in guys down the stretch, where you’re able to run the same play but run the counter to try to get a good shot for your team.”

“It’s cool, man,” Paul added on the process. “He make it one time and then I’ll look and be like, ‘Hey, we gonna run it again on this side.’ When you start having the ball a lot and you’re a scorer, you start figuring those things out.”

For Bridges to pick up those tweaks with Paul and execute the reads is tremendous growth.

“You’re watching Mikal in those moments come through,” Williams said of Bridges. “I think the guys are feeding him a lot of confidence but he has his own confidence because he’s putting the work in and he’s not worried about the consequences. … Chris was really good about putting him in his spots.”

Paul co-signed the amount of winning situations Bridges has been in the last two-plus years as helping Bridges be ready for this and also credited the stretch he and Booker missed.

“When we both were out, it’s a lot of responsibility on him,” Paul said. “One time during the game tonight, I was on the bench and I said, ‘It’s crazy having to make every play, ain’t it?’”

Toronto Raptors hang with Phoenix Suns but come up short, losing 114-106 – Raptors HQ

If there’s an early lesson from this long road trip for the Toronto Raptors, it’s that even when their effort is there, the margin for error is still razor thin.

After the woeful defense and anemic shooting of late December and early January, the Raptors are visibly in a much better spot today. They’ve got one of the league’s top five offenses over the last 10 days, their star players in Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam have come to life, and they’re getting big contributions from Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa on both ends.

All good news, right? Well, it’s not resulting in wins — not yet at least — as the Raptors went into Phoenix and made just enough mistakes to lose, 114-106. It’s the fifth win in the last six games for the Suns, who were led by 29 points from Mikal Bridges (on a blistering 12-for-19 from the field) and 22 points and 13 rebounds from Deandre Ayton.

Fred VanVleet had 24 points to lead the Raptors, while Gary Trent Jr. had 21, Pascal Siakam chipped in 19 and Precious Achiuwa had an 11-point, 12-rebound double double. Scottie Barnes had the most well-rounded outing, posting 16 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.

Turnovers were the story early on for the Raptors, as wayward bounce passes resulted in transition opportunities for the Suns. Bridges got easy shots early, scoring 10 of the first 14 points for Phoenix, allowing him to build a hot hand that extended through most of the game. Toronto ended up with six turnovers in the first quarter alone, but some good offensive decision-making from VanVleet and Trent Jr. — getting downhill and to their spots on the floor — kept things mostly even. The Suns led by just three after the first.

After playing the whole first quarter, Siakam extended his minutes into the second to lead the Raptors bench unit. Nick Nurse wouldn’t dig into the ninth or tenth spot in his rotation until the second half in this game, which meant heavy minutes for the starters in the first half. Still, the Suns managed to find bench players to pick on, as they were able to extend their lead on a series of Chris Paul pick and rolls against Juancho Hernangomez. While a couple VanVleet shots near the end of the half kept it close, the Suns went into the break up 62-53.

The Raptors responded, though. Coming out of halftime with their best stretch of the game, Toronto picked up their defensive intensity and got threes from both Siakam and VanVleet to rip off a 10-0 run. They would end up +11 in the third before fatigue started to become a factor.

To buy his big guns some rest, Nurse went with a bench lineup led by Scottie Barnes to start the fourth — supporting with Malachi Flynn, Chris Boucher, Thad Young and Hernangomez. It wasn’t quite the disaster-class that some expected it to be, but throwing in two cold bodies did eventually catch up with the Raptors. Flynn bravely made a couple threes, but it’s all Toronto could muster offensively. Once the Suns’ starters started to come back in five minutes into the quarter, they were able to take a small lead and get control over the game.

On the game’s late possessions, the Raptors couldn’t summon the same energy they started the half with. Paul and Ayton started to hunt out mismatches in the pick and roll and Toronto missed key rotations — a Paul triple with 1:30 left ended up being the nail in the coffin, putting Phoenix up four and ahead for good.

Raptors run out of gas in road loss to Suns | The Star

A Chris Paul three-pointer with about 90 seconds left gave Phoenix a four-point lead, and a putback basket by Deandre Ayton about 30 seconds later sealed the deal.

Fred VanVleet had 24 points to lead Toronto, and Precious Achiuwa finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds in his second start in place of injured O.G. Anunoby.

Raptors officials said before the game that Anunoby will sit for the rest of the seven-game road trip team and won’t be evaluated by team doctors until the first of next week in Toronto.

Anunoby suffered a sprained left wrist from a fall in Friday’s loss at Golden State. X-rays were taken that night, and Anunoby also had an MRI on the weekend.

“This trip has a long way to go yet — it’s not like this trip is ending around the corner — so it’s a little surprising to me,” coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “We know what we have now with this trip.”

The Raptors finish up with games at Utah on Wednesday, in Houston on Friday and at Memphis on Sunday.

The earliest Anunoby would return is a Wednesday home game against San Antonio, a day before the NBA trade deadline.

Achiuwa will continue to fill Anunoby’s spot in the starting lineup, and the Raptors are expected to keep Christian Koloko around through the rest of the trip rather than reassigning him to the G League Raptors 905.

Toronto could have used some of Anunoby’s offence against the Suns, because the Raptors got bogged down far too often. They committed 11 first-half turnovers — they were averaging a league-low 11.7 per game before the contest — that kept them from getting untracked.

It also locked up a lot of Scottie Barnes’s special skill at a time when the second-year Raptor is enjoying by far his best stretch of the regular season.

After a so-so start — not bad, but too uninvolved too often — he was averaging about 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 10 games before Monday while shooting nearly 54 per cent from the floor and playing just about every position.

He’ll guard centres and check guards. He’ll bring the ball up the court or instigate the offence from the post or at the elbow.

“I’ve always been able to move around the floor,” he said. “It’s nothing new to me … to be able to play big, play point guard. It depends on the time in the game. It doesn’t really matter — I’m able to try to step into that role and play it as well as possible.”

He’s been providing a much-needed consistency to Toronto’s offence, which is carrying the team through some defensive difficulties.

Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr star in Raptors’ Loss to Suns – Sports Illustrated Toronto Raptors

O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Gary Trent Jr. have all been connected to Phoenix over the past week or so and it’s not hard to see why. Phoenix is good, but not quite as good as last year. Chris Paul has taken a step back, Deandre Ayton hasn’t quite taken a big step forward despite his big contract, and an injury to Devin Booker had the Suns just one game above .500 coming into Monday.

On the Anunoby front, things are a little complicated. He’s the easiest fit and someone who could slide into the starting lineup on virtually every contending team without a hiccup. However, a left wrist injury he suffered last Friday has him sidelined until at least Feb. 8 and potentially longer. What exactly that means for his trade value is anyone’s guess.

VanVleet’s situation and Phoenix’s interest is almost as perplexing. The 28-year-old point guard would be a great fit for the Suns if not for the fact that they already have an undersized veteran point guard of their own.

But VanVleet, if traded, is going to help someone a ton. He showed as much Monday, for the second straight game, keeping the Raptors around all night with a 24-point, nine-assist outing.

He’s been a much-improved playmaker this season, especially on the drive. He opened the game with a savvy dump-off pass to Precious Achiuwa, swung an extra pass to Chris Boucher for three, and sucked the defense in before throwing a kick-out to Gary Trent Jr. for three.

On a better team, VanVleet’s life would be even easier. He can still do it with the best of ’em, slithering his way into the paint for buckets and nailing mid-range jumpers, fighting through contact, or nailing pull-up jumpers as he did late in the third to pull the Raptors even at 80. But ideally, VanVleet isn’t a secondary scoring option. Phoenix, for example, could have him slide down the latter, playing a tertiary role on a team with championship aspirations.

Gary Trent Jr. probably makes the most sense for Phoenix as another high-octane scorer for a team who came into Monday with a middle-of-the-pack offense. He showed off his floor-spacing chops, nailing a trio of three-pointers and getting into the paint for a tough And-1 through contact from Paul en route to a 21-point performance of his own.

Considering Toronto’s record, Monday’s loss probably wasn’t even that devastating. Their high-value trade chips looked solid in a showcase game and the Raptors stayed competitive until the very end.

Ultimately, a miss from Mikal Bridges, one of his few on an otherwise stellar night, led to an offensive rebound and a crucial three-pointer from Paul to put the Suns up for good. Toronto missed a pair of threes on the ensuing two possessions and the Raptors, well, dropped back below the Los Angeles Lakers for the sixth-worst record in the NBA.

Raptors come up short in crunch time as Phoenix Suns topple Toronto | Toronto Sun

With their 114-106 loss to the Suns, the Raptors are 2-2 on their seven-game road trip, the team’s longest of the season.

This was a winnable game, but some early game lapses and an inability late on both ends of the floor could not be overcome.

Phoenix wasn’t great, but it was good enough when responses were required and more importantly when plays were needed in the game’s final two minutes.

Defence and turnovers were the main culprits in the opening half for the Raptors.

Toronto quickly had its back to the wall against the Suns, trailing the home side 62-53 at the break.

The Raptors had a tough time defending and had an even tougher time protecting the basketball as 11 first-half turnovers were committed.

Three would be committed by Siakam, who picked up three fouls with 8:26 left in the second quarter.

Oddly enough, the Raptors were never out of the game, despite their penchant for turning the ball over because they made just enough runs to remain within striking distance.

A more engaged, energetic and defensively sound Raptors team came out for the second half and quickly throw the first punch.

By the time Phoenix caught its breath, the Raptors had gone on a 10-0 run, forcing the Suns to call a timeout.

The pace was quicker, shots were heaved with assertiveness and the defensive glass was controlled, areas that helped fuel Toronto’s surge to take its first lead of the game.

The run was extended to 12-0 before the Suns made their first shot.

Lacklustre for most of the first half, the Raptors turned lethal to begin the second half.

When the Suns were able to mount their own run, it was sparked by their ability to get out in transition.

Defensively, the Suns were much better as the Raptors missed seven shots in succession during one stretch.

In a game of runs, there wasn’t much separation in a hard-fought game that would be decided in the fourth quarter.

After three periods, the Raptors were leading 84-82.

All five Toronto starters reached double digits in scoring.

The bench produced five points, all from Chris Boucher.

Toronto did not commit a single turnover in the third quarter.

The fourth quarter began with Malachi Flynn giving the Raptors some quality minutes off the bench.

When three of Toronto’s starters re-entered, head coach Nick Nurse kept Flynn on the floor.

Flynn left for Gary Trent Jr. with five minutes left as closing time and winning time had officially arrived.

The Raptors are getting the best of Scottie Barnes | The Star

“I always had vision, always had a high (basketball) IQ, so I feel like I’ve always been seeing the floor very well,” he said here Monday morning, before the Raptors faced the Phoenix Suns. “When the defence collapses, I always can kick (the ball) out and make the right play.

“That’s what I pride myself on, just trying to make the right plays, and it shows.”

It certainly has showed of late, because the second-year Raptor is enjoying by far his best stretch of the regular season.

After a so-so start — not bad, but too uninvolved too often — he averaged about 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists in his last 10 games before Monday night, while shooting nearly 54 per cent from the floor and playing just about every position. He’ll guard centres and check guards, bring the ball up the court or instigate the offence from the post or at the elbow.

“I’ve always been able to move around the floor,” he said. “It’s nothing new to me … to be able to play big, play point guard. It depends on the time in the game (but) it doesn’t really matter. I’m able to try to step into that role and play it as well as possible.”

He’s provided a much-needed consistency to the offence, which is carrying the Raptors through some defensive difficulties.

“I’m just trying to play to win, not worrying about anything else, and I feel like it just shows for itself,” he said. “Everything else just sets up good for us as a unit.”

The Raptors need Barnes’s unique versatility to make the offence function at its best. They need him to move the ball and himself, to pick apart defences with passes but also pound his way to the rim when matchups dictate.

Privately, they will marvel at his overall skill set and also say they need to see it every night, not just every now and then. Lately, it’s been far more often than not, and it’s caught the eye of opponents.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, an astute judge of NBA talent, said the first thing he notices about Barnes is the 21-year-old’s defensively ability, but there’s so much more. And all Kerr has to think about is Draymond Green, the Golden State veteran whose skills are comparable.

“The next thing you know is, he’s sort of a point forward,” Kerr said. “I think it’s a very appropriate comparison (to Green). Guys like that have a feel for the game. They have a sense of what’s happening on the floor seemingly before the other nine people out there. That’s why I enjoy watching Barnes play. For a young guy, he has a great feel for the game.”

There are times when it looks like Barnes is almost too content to pass when he should be using his size and strength to bully defenders in the paint. But that’s just the way his mind works. He wants to see what he can create for others before he gets his own.

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