Preview: Toronto Raptors (23-38) at Phoenix Suns (21-39)

Raptors

Raptors

Suns

Time: 7 p.m. MST

TV: FSAZ

First glances can deceive, and tonight’s game is further proof of that.

The respective records of Toronto and Phoenix indicate they’re in the same boat. Lottery-bound.  Going nowhere. A mess.

A closer look at recent results, however, reveals they couldn’t be further apart.

The Raptors have dropped five straight, the second-longest active losing streak in their conference. Meanwhile the Suns have ripped off three straight victories. Incredibly Phoenix holds the second-longest current winning streak in their conference (behind Denver’s six-game stretch).

Toronto’s slide has severely crippled their playoff hopes, dropping them to 10th in the East and 8.5 games back of surging Milwaukee. The Suns? Their playoff hopes were crippled to begin with. Their recent, illogical stab at winning is more damaging to the likelihood of a top-five pick than anything else.

Phoenix’s biggest victory (besides the wins) has been the optimism garnered from the streak. Wes Johnson (totals over last three games: 37 points, 17 rebounds, 7-of-13 3FG, five steals) is threatening to shed the bust label he slowly manufactured after being drafted fourth overall. The Morris twins are, if recent results are any indicator, vastly better playing together than they are apart. Goran Dragic is turning his post-All-Star Weekend onslaught into an annual event.

The Suns aren’t completely devoid of losses. Jermaine O’Neal is out for at least three games while his daughter undergoes heart surgery. It’s a refreshing reminder of priorities, especially with O’Neal playing the best he’s played in years (11.8ppg, 8.0rpg over his last five games).

Tonight’s game, however, boasts a frontcourt matchup unfriendly to Lindsey Hunter’s lately-used combo of O’Neal and Marcin Gortat. Raptors center Andrea Bargnani, a perimeter-oriented big man, hit five 3-pointers in Toronto’s most recent loss to Golden State. O’Neal and/or Gortat are unlikely candidates to chase the former No. 1 overall pick around the 3-point line. The task could fall to Markieff Morris should Gortat or Luis Scola struggle with the assignment.

Expect P.J. Tucker and Johnson to spend a lot of energy on defense guarding either Rudy Gay or DeMar DeRozan, though Johnson would ideally force one of them to do the same on the other end. Gay matched Bargnani’s 26 points in their last outing, and is more comfortable shooting from outside than DeRozan. Most importantly, Phoenix must keep both former slam dunk participants from getting loose in transition.

The point guard matchup features two former teammates (and competitors for a starting spot) in Dragic and Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. Lowry ended up two assists shy of a triple-double against Golden State, and Dragic will need to focus more on boxing out than usual. Lowry averages an impressive 4.8 rebounds per game despite measuring just six-feet.

The Suns won the previous meeting with Toronto, 101-97.

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