Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 104-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
One — Almost: When the Raptors have been at their best this season, they have toppled all the giants in the East. When they are at their worst, they can lose to anybody as demonstrated in their nine-game slide. But more often than not, the Raptors play an average game with spurts of good effort, and the results are like this one, where they stay even with the Suns for most of the night, fall down by double digits, then climb back into the game only to lose at the end on avoidable and annoying mistakes. It is what it is at this point.
Two — Together: The Raptors can still flip the switch defensively, which is why these comebacks are made possible. The Suns are one of the best offenses in the league, with two dynamic scorers in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, a 7-foot dunk machine in Deandre Ayton, and shooters flanking them at all times, and yet the Raptors held the Suns starters in check. Phoenix scored six points over the final six minutes, two of which came on a cheap foul on Paul, two intentional free throws to stop the clock, and a contested layup. Having shuffled through various defenses, Nick Nurse found a good rhythm with his starters switching to deny dribble penetration and to limit help at the rim, and it nearly sparked the comeback.
Three — Impatient: One of the many problems for the Raptors continues to be clutch offense, and most of their problems came down to shot selection. Fred VanVleet racing to fire a 30-foot trailing three with a hand in his face is not a good shot in any circumstance, Gary Trent Jr. fired off a quick three despite being 0-for-5 from deep on the night, and Pascal Siakam forced a drive that got blocked by the bigger and stronger Ayton. Part of that speaks to a personnel issue. The Suns have two players in Booker and Paul who can usually get to their spots and create a good shot when things slow down, whereas the Raptors don't have that luxury. But then again, it wasn't like the Suns were all that great in their execution either.
Four — Everywhere: The value of an all-action, all-matchup defender like OG Anunoby cannot be overstated. Booker made the mistake of calling for the screen to seek out Anunoby on the switch twice in the fourth quarter, and both times Anunoby danced in step before forcing Booker into awkward misses. There is no such thing as a mismatch for Anunoby on defense, which is truly rare. The only help Anunoby really needs is someone to get on the glass and secure the rebound because most likely Anunoby will be getting the stop. Unfortunately for the Raptors, they don't seem to have that guy this season.
Five — Lively: Siakam was in the mood to attack and feasted on the Suns early on. He was patient in the post, quick on his drives, and his hustle got him to the free-throw line. When the help game, Siakam picked out the right passes, and was rolling. But when the second half came, the offense shifted towards getting Kyle Lowry going in the pick-and-roll, and there weren't as many touches for Siakam. He made a short jumper and a push shot in the second half but his gusto from the start was gone. This is an unfortunate trend where Siakam starts strong but fades as the game continues, and it needs to be curbed. Siakam needs to get his touches, especially on a night where the only Suns player to deter him inside was Ayton.
Six — Solid: It was a muted debut for Gary Trent Jr., who was acquired along with Rodney Hood in the Norman Powell trade. Trent Jr. had just arrived last night without practicing with the team, but was put in the starting lineup, so it's hard to imagine that he was playing on anything other than instinct. Trent got a few shots to fall in the midrange by coming off screens, but was badly misfiring from three which is usually his strength. Defensively, he didn't look out of place with the starters, and had one highlight where he aggressively crowded Booker and ripped the ball away to spark a fast break. He'll get much more comfortable after the Raptors hold practice on Saturday.
Seven — Fine: Hood was used as the first sub off the bench, although that could be due to DeAndre' Bembry and Paul Watson Jr. being placed in health and safety protocols. He didn't stand out much, which is a problem since the Raptors need as much help as they can get in the second unit. Outside of a post jumper over Paul, there weren't many opportunities for Hood to attack. He seems to lack burst when he moves, which could be a sign that he is still recovering from the Achilles injury he suffered last season.
Eight — Shuffle: Nurse used both Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher as his backup centers behind Anunoby, and both players were imperfect. Baynes started well in his first few minutes, but the Suns quickly identified him as a mismatch, and both Paul and Booker made it their mission to expose him. Boucher was poor in his first shift, particularly on the defensive glass and was held to only six minutes in the first half, but Nurse turned back to him in the second half and for key moments in the fourth quarter. There are temporary solutions to be found, but you can never fully feel solid with either one on the floor. Still, for what they both do, Boucher should get the first crack at it since the upside of when he plays well easily trumps what Baynes can do.
Nine — Pesky: Even though Lowry didn't end up being moved at the deadline, there is still an opportunity for rookie guard Malachi Flynn to find his footing. Flynn's defense seems to be ahead of his offense so far, but there's a role for a ball hawk who can dig into the ball and keep light-footed guards in front of him. Offensively, the Raptors are mostly looking for Flynn to score rather than giving him the ball to allow him to create for others, and that is going to be a continued struggle for him. More often than not, Flynn is getting to a pull-up jumper, and that lends him to odd nights where his percentages aren't good, but he needs to nail that shot to have a chance. If defenders start reacting to that shot, Flynn can get inside and start showcasing the other nuances of his game.
Ten — Overall: With the Raptors only moving one of their two veteran guards at the deadline, they remain in the middle with their intentions. This is a team that is painfully short on depth and borderline defunct at center but is also capable of competing with anybody. They're too competitive to surrender the season and tank, but they're also not equipped to rattle off a long win streak to get back into the playoff picture in a meaningful way. So long as players like Anunoby, Siakam, Flynn, VanVleet, and Trent Jr. show improvement and development, that matters more than the results. Losses aren't the end of the world with the Raptors in line to collect their first own top-10 pick since 2012.
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