TORONTO – With regard to soft landing, you can not do much better than the Phoenix Suns. Entangled in a competitive battle for overall No. 1 pick in this summer's draft, Phoenix has been giving its all during the first half of the season, already featuring three separate losing sequences of six games or more. Only three of the team's 10 most-used players are above the age of 23. On Thursday, the Suns gave early minutes to De Melton, Elie Okobo and Richaun Holmes, ordered here by the probability of being confused by a randomly generated game. NBA 2K creates a player.
No matter that the Suns spent Tuesday night in Toronto, patiently awaiting Wednesday's game, while the Toronto Raptors were in Boston, testing emotionally exhausting wills with a Celtics team that ended up in a dismal defeat. If you have to play less than 24 hours after a game like that, it may be against Phoenix.
And yet, as they usually do, the Raptors have made it much harder than it should be. It was still a hard and fought victory, 111-109, in the end. But it was far from being as easy as it should have been. Toronto rose a dozen after the first. But a combination of Phoenix's youthful exuberance and Toronto's terrible three-point shot allowed the Suns to stay close, and even take a one-point lead into the final period of the game.
Certainly, that is where the Toronto experience and all the top talent should have taken over. But there the two teams were going back and forth in the final minutes until they finished at 109 with 13 seconds remaining. That's when Raptors coach Nick Nurse made an insulation move for Pascal Siakam who attacked right into the paint and rolled a left-handed southpaw! – play on more than two Suns defenders.
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It was an appropriately unexpected move to end an unexpectedly competitive game full of unexpected events. Namely, C.J. Miles received his first prolonged run without loss time in 9 games. Patrick McCaw, recently hired after a complicated divorce of the NBA champions, made his debut at the Raptors. In the absence of Kawhi Leonard, resting in the second half of the back-to-back, Siakam took on the role of "a little bit of everything" in Toronto. Chris Boucher played significant minutes in the fourth quarter.
How is everything going? Miles took full advantage of his opportunity, playing with impact at both ends of the floor and making 5 of 7 shots. McCaw looked a lot like a guy making his fourth appearance of the season, coming out after his first six minutes as a Raptor with a minus 11 next to his name. Siakam was quietly exceptional even before the winner of the game, winning his tenth double of the season, making good decisions almost every time the ball touched his hands. And Boucher's presence was certainly felt as he went to work on last year's No. 1 pick, Deandre Ayton, and was the focal point of a seven-point possession (not a typo) in the bedroom.
Games like these will not necessarily stay down in history, but they are important, however, for a team full of questions, and a technical team equipped with only 35 regular season games remaining to answer them.
Uncertainty begins with the second unit of Toronto because it is easily the most confusing problem that the Raptors currently face. It is not added to the paper. It is widely accepted that one of Toronto's greatest strengths is depth. And when you're bringing capable runners like Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet out of the bank, joining them with athletic wings like OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, and solidifying things with a combination of Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas (when healthy), and Greg Monroe, it's hard to see where things could go wrong.
But they do. The Toronto bank disappointed the team at some very critical times this season, the latest coming during a disastrous second quarter on Wednesday in Boston. The injured Valanciunas rejoining the Raptors sometime in the coming weeks will certainly help as Nurse lost the ability to position his two main centers based on fights while Monroe's shortcomings were exposed as his minutes increased.
But despite prominent performances here and there, neither Wright nor Anunoby looked this season, and returning them consistently would be much more shocking. Wright, to his credit, had a strong game against the Suns, contributing 10 points and five assists.
VanVleet's game at the bench was also erratic, though he has been running with the starters more often in the last six weeks as the Raptors battled injuries. And then, somewhere in the desert, there are Miles, who entered the game on Thursday having made only 17 of his last 65 attempts, making the way completely out of Nurse's spins in the process. Like Wright, VanVleet and Miles were strong against the Suns. But the last three words of that phrase probably had an impact on the first eight.
The Toronto bank was a source of energy and productivity last night and last season but the only player consistently meeting that standard so far this year is Norman Powell, who can not be praised for having played well since he returned injury . Meanwhile, Nurse struggled to find the right spins for the group, sometimes surprising Lowry and Leonard to give a boost to the unit, and others turning to netting monster Danny Green, who failed to make the reserves go against the Celtics. Wednesday.
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So that's a big problem. Another is the perimeter shot of the Raptors, who will need to improve sometime between now and April. If that does not happen, what do you think the teams will do against Toronto in the playoffs? They'll pack the paint, protect the rim and get close to the Raptors' snipers, challenging the NBA's seventh worst three-point shooting team to beat them in the distance.
And so far, no stricter coverage has been made to limit the Raptors beyond the arc. While Toronto reached Thursday's game with 38.4% of the three points set by NBA.com (tossed to the closest defender more than two meters away), that number dropped quickly to 31.2% with a defender between 4-6. feet and 22.4 percent at 2-4 feet. These last two rates were among the top five in the championship.
The Toronto crime crunch will also need to be addressed soon. That was not more evident than in Boston on Wednesday when Toronto scored just four points in the final four minutes of the game. It was a cacophony of ill-made plays, poorly selected plays, and, in the most critical moments of the game, uninspired basketball, when the Raptors put the ball in Leonard's hands, cleaned their clothes and waited for him to do something.
Leonard is a ridiculous talent, and there will be nights when he is good enough to pull the Raptors to victory despite this unimaginative approach. But there is no way to succeed in the long run. And on Wednesday there were no excuses. The Raptors had their best formation on the ground in the midst of a competitive, playoff-like game. They simply did not execute. They barely moved. At this point of the season, this should not be happening.
The Raptors could try to solve many of these problems with a single onslaught on a commercial basis by acquiring a reliable and defensive shooter to reinforce the second unit, provide the three-point goal the Raptors were missing from Miles and provide another late game score option when necessary. Or, spinning players like Wright, Anunoby, VanVleet and Miles could start playing with their skills with more consistency, improving the team from within. A mixture of both may be the best approach.
So, even though it was only the second half of a half season, against one of the worst outfits in the NBA, Thursday's game against the Suns was not meaningless. For the Raptors, as they win-now like any team in the league, none of their remaining games will be. Is this where Miles revolves around his troubled season? Can Wright and VanVleet bring this level of play more consistently? Will Siakam's escape season continue to drive? Just add them to the question stack.