PHOENIX — Coming into Friday night’s contest, the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors found themselves only a game out of the playoff race in their respective conferences.
While not its conference’s premiere representative of superior talent, the Suns did just enough to prove that the balance of power lies firmly on the western side of the Mississippi River.
In a game that played out like a choppy and rather undisciplined 48-minute display of basketball, Phoenix outlasted Toronto 106-97 for its first home victory over an Eastern Conference opponent in 2013-14.
Markieff Morris took advantage of Tyler Hansbrough’s first-quarter injury (left shoulder sprain) and hit his first 11 shots from the field en route to a team-high 25 points. P.J. Tucker continued his consistent play at both ends of the court, scoring 18 points and snagging a season-high 13 rebounds, while helping limit the Raptors’ wing scorers — Rudy Gay and Demar DeRozan — to an 11-for-30 shooting night.
And despite the uneven feel in Phoenix’s nine-point victory, the Suns held the Raptors to just 12 second chance points. Heading into the night, Dwayne Casey’s squad led the league in that category, averaging 17.7 per game. On the flip side, Phoenix had 16 second chance points Friday.
The Suns also won the battle on the offensive boards, grabbing 18 to Toronto’s 11.
“I think they were ready to go on the boards,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said of his team out-rebounding Toronto 53-36. “That has to be our biggest advantage of the year. Everybody went for them. P.J. at the three-spot pulls down 13 boards, because he went after them. We boxed out.”
Let’s see how the game answered Ryan Weisert’s three pregame questions?
Who will handle the distribution duties for Phoenix?
Neither Eric Bledsoe nor Goran Dragic concerned themselves all that much with serving as facilitators.
Through 19 games, both guards were averaging at or above around six assists per night. Only one of the two, Bledsoe, would reach that mark against Toronto. The duo combined for 32 points and eight dimes in the win, six of which belonged to the first-year Sun.
In games in which he’s played start to finish, Friday was just the third time Dragic failed to record at least five assists. Although it should be noted that on more than one occasion the Suns made the necessary extra pass to create an open shot. Unfortunately for Dragic, hockey assists don’t count in the NBA.
Which sophomore center will win the matchup inside?
Jonas, Miles, at times neither, at times both and all of the above.
In short, there was no clear-cut winner in the battle of second-year centers.
Plumlee started the game 3-of-3 from the field for eight points, and then sat out the first nine minutes of the second quarter. Valanciunas had a pedestrian first quarter, but finished the first half with nine points and five rebounds. While his scoring primarily came at free throw line, the former first-round pick did have a rather eventful sequence with under a minute to play in the first half.
After dunking over Plumlee, the Raptors center swung violently underneath the basket, though he failed to hit anything resembling an opposing player. However, as he ran back from underneath the basket, Valanciunas and Markieff Morris met chest-to-chest and both were subsequently issued technical fouls.
Neither played big minutes in the second half. Plumlee missed all three attempts he took from the field in the third quarter but grabbed five boards. Valanciunas finished with a double-double (11 points and 10 rebounds), but outside of a five-footer to beat the third quarter buzzer, he wasn’t heard from after halftime.
The real story turned out to be reserve forwards Markieff Morris and Amir Johnson, who combined for 47 points and 18 rebounds coming off the bench.
Can Slava get some time?
Yes. Kravstov played for the eighth time this season, though it wasn’t for the reason one might think.
Although the Suns proved they were ultimately better from top-to-bottom than the Raptors Friday night, the second-year center found his way onto the court in the first half. After Miles Plumlee went toe-to-toe with Jonas Valanciunas for the first 10 minutes of the opening frame, Jeff Hornacek called on Kravstov to try his hand at defending the seven-foot Lithuanian. Valanciunas didn’t get a touch over the final 1:28 of the first quarter, but Kravstov did.
After Markieff Morris missed the back-end of his trip to the charity stripe, the 26-year-old had a point-blank chance for his first points since Nov. 27. Instead, he missed in rather ugly fashion.
Kravstov returned to the floor to begin the second quarter but was promptly replaced by Archie Goodwin a little over a minute in, as the Suns decided to go small to counter a Raptors’ lineup that featured Steve Novak and Amir Johnson in the front court.
While it looked like he’d have a chance to get some late garbage minutes, Phoenix’s 15-point fourth quarter lead was whittled down to six with under two minutes to play.