After an abysmal loss to the Pistons Wednesday night that left everyone wondering how the team would respond, the Phoenix Suns fought to the bitter end tonight in Toronto. Though they fell 101-97 to the Raptors, Suns fans can breathe a sigh of relief that the 40-point shellacking Phoenix received earlier this week seems to have left the squad no worse for the wear mentally. The Suns worked incredibly hard throughout and played much better basketball from start to finish.
I don’t want to gloss over the fact that Phoenix lost to an Eastern Conference team that had only three wins coming into tonight’s game. The Raptors are a very young team with a great deal of potential, but they are definitely a team the Suns can and should beat. The truth behind the loss is that it’s never easy to win on the road in the NBA, and the Suns are weary after their fourth road game in six days.
The story from this game is not the loss. It is the change in character for the Suns, who looked like two completely different teams against Detroit and Toronto. The team played with no heart and no effort two nights ago. Tonight they had both in spades.
Phoenix was much improved offensively. Marcin Gortat actively looked for his shot and was efficient from the field. Against physical front lines like those from Utah and Detroit, Gortat has been out-worked, out-muscled, and completely lost. But against the Great White North — Andrea Bargnani, Linas Kleiza, and Jonas Valanciunas — Gortat held his own. His biggest improvement was his face-up after the catch. Gortat is not a great back-to-the-basket scorer. He’s most potent when facing the basket. That position allows him to use his agility to get other seven-footers with one dribble or shoot over the top of smaller defenders. His jumper looked solid tonight, and he got some easy baskets underneath. Though he’s still not back to his early season double-double form, Marcin can build on performances like tonight’s.
Joining Gortat on the righted ship was Michael Beasley. Beasley made more shots than he missed (4-of-7) and dished out six assists on the night. The biggest difference in his performance was where he caught the ball. When he catches out beyond the arc, Beasley is not an effective scorer. But tonight, he continually received the ball inside of 20 feet and was quite productive. He penetrated, finished around the basket, and found teammates left open by rotating defenders. The more the Suns can get Michael the ball inside the arc, the more successful both he and the team will be.
The last of the big improvements was Jared Dudley, who looked much sharper shooting the ball in this game (14 pts, 5-6 FG, 2-3 3-pt.) He’s still not playing with the confidence he had last year, but if his shots keep falling, he could regain his form in the near future. For now, he has to continue to adjust to the playing style of this year’s roster.
Though the Raptors aren’t much better defensively than the Suns, Phoenix should still be proud of its efficiency and assist rate. The Suns shot 48.1 percent from the field and 17-of-19 from the charity stripe. They also recorded 28 assists on 37 made baskets, one of the highest rates by any team this season. Their ball movement and cutting were light years better in this game. Dragic kept the ball in his hands and initiated the offense from the top of the key instead of passing to the wing and cutting away. This approach encouraged quick passing instead of isolation and led to open shots and easy buckets. It also kept the Suns from falling behind by double digits like they have done so frequently this year.
Defensively the Suns looked better in this game (though still not great). Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors’ second-leading scorer, was held to just four points on four shots. It was clear the Suns were keying on the big man, trying to make life difficult for him every time he touched the ball. Unfortunately for them, the Suns’ lack of athleticism was their undoing once again.
DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson combined for 39 points and were a step faster than every defender the Suns put on them. Late in the game, Phoenix started overloading defensively by bringing multiple help defenders to the ball side of the court. This helped slow the turnstile in the paint, but it left the Suns vulnerable to kick outs. The Raptors made five long jumpers in the final 17 minutes, including three from beyond the arc. Those shots helped Toronto keep pace in this back-and-forth game. The Suns are worst in the NBA in 3-point percentage allowed, a stat that won’t change any time soon unless Phoenix undergoes a major overhaul in defensive scheme.
This game was incredibly close throughout and came down to plays at the end of quarters. The Raptors got three points as the buzzer sounded to end the second (a Kyle Lowry 3-pointer) and third (a ridiculous And-1 continuation by DeRozan). If this game were a boxing match, those plays were the Raptors stealing a round the Suns had dominated. In the final moments, the Suns couldn’t do the same, missing shots on their final two possession which could have tied the game or given Phoenix the lead.
Both sides fought valiantly. Toronto just landed a few more punches. The NBA season is an 82-round bout. The Suns came out swinging in this matchup, but lost on points. If they continue to fight this hard, however, the W’s will come.