Time: 10:00 a.m. MDT
When last the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors faced one another this season, the direction of both were facing in opposite directions. The Suns were slightly above .500, scraping their way night after night in order to defy all expectations or lack there of. The Raptors, on the other hand, were floundering. The offense was stagnant. The defense was non-existent. And, Dwane Casey appeared to be an early-season favorite to become the first coach to axed in 2013-14.
But my what three months and the departure of a me-first small forward can do for a team. Three nights after its 106-97 loss in Phoenix on Dec. 6, Toronto shipped Rudy Gay off to Sacramento in a seven-player deal that netted a return of John Salmons, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. While not necessarily the steal of the century on the part of talented general manager Masai Ujuri, the move proved to be just the shakeup the franchise needed.
Heading into Sunday’s contest, the Raptors have won 31 of their 46 games played since the Gay trade and appear destined for their first Atlantic Division title since 2007.
DeMar Derozan continues to play at an All-Star level. Recent first-round picks Terrence Ross and Jonas Valancuinas are starting to warrant their top 10 sections. And Kyle Lowry continues to serve as the straw that stirs the drink north of the border. Put it together and the Suns and Raptors face off with nearly identical records and serious thoughts of postseason play — something that might have seemed downright foolish to suggest back in December.
Here’s a look at the three keys to the inter-conference clash:
How does Phoenix adjust to early start time?
Professional basketball players don’t struggle with changing time zones, in fact the way the NBA schedule plays out some teams might play in three or four in a given week. The time of day, though, is a different story. The Suns have played in 65 games this season, of which none have been played in the early afternoon.
It might seem meaningless, however for a team that has notoriously struggled at the start of games lately, it’ll certainly be something worthy of keeping a close eye on.
Who wins between the battle of former teammates?
Since their respective departures from Houston, Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry have flourished in starring roles.
Despite another season filled with trade rumors and speculation, Lowry is on the verge of setting new career highs in points (17.0), assists (7.8) and rebounds (4.7) per game, as well as field goal (41.8) and three-point (38.5) percentage. DeRozan might get the league-wide attention, but Toronto currently holds the No. 3 seed because of Lowry’s elevated play.
The same can really be said for Dragic, who kept Phoenix afloat during Eric Bledsoe’s 33-game from Dec. 30 – March 12. Like Lowry, the Suns guard is on pace to set new highs in several statistical categories including points per game, rebounds per game, shooting percentage and three-point percentage. He also has 31 games of at least 20 points this season, including six in a row despite an ailing left side.
Back in their first head-to-head meeting of the campaign, Lowry, statistically speaking, had a much better night than Dragic. But it was the Slovenian’s team who came out on top.
So while it might not be a precursor to which side wins, the Dragic-Lowry matchup should be fun to watch.
Will Alex Len see an increase in minutes?
The first-year center was likely not going to make an appearance Friday night in Boston, if not for Miles Plumlee getting poked in the left eye by Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk. Regardless, Len definitely showed some encouraging flashes in his nine minutes of action, scoring six points and grabbing three rebounds. Most importantly, his late-game offensive board and eventual three-point play swung the game in Phoenix’s favor for good en route to an 87-80 victory.
While Plumlee’s eye doesn’t appear to have been seriously injured, Len’s production against Boston certainly warrants a few more minutes Sunday.
Whether head coach Jeff Hornacek elects to actually give him those minutes, well, that’s a whole other story.