Through three quarters of Monday night’s home tilt against the Phoenix Suns, the Toronto Raptors (12-2) were able to ride a wave of momentum and positivity surrounding the club to a comfortable lead in what was a largely celebratory affair. Lou Williams was celebrated for his “NBA Player of the Week” honour, Jonas Valanciunas exploited a weak Suns’ front court for a career night (more on both of those later) and the team gradually built up to a 15-point lead heading into the fourth.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the league’s highest scoring team rode its guard-heavy offence to a 14-point surge in a span of just 2:06 before engaging in a back-and-forth final frame that saw Phoenix re-take the lead. With the game tied and just under two minutes remaining, the Raps forced a Gerald Green offensive foul before securing two second chance opportunities and earning a pair of Patrick Patterson free throws that put them ahead for good.
Both clubs earned distinct advantages in very different areas during Toronto’s 104-100 win. The Suns shot 14-33 (42.4%) from the three-point line (compared to just 4-17 shooting by the Raps), sparked by contributions from Isaiah Thomas (4-6), PJ Tucker (3-4) and Eric Bledsoe (3-6). The Raptors, however, were able to offset that edge with commanding advantages in free throws (26-32 to 8-11) and turnovers (they forced 20 while coughing up just 12 of their own).
In Raps’ injury news, James Johnson returned from an ankle sprain to play four impact-less minutes. Meanwhile, Tyler Hansbrough remained out with a shoulder injury.
JV and the front line
The book on Phoenix is pretty clear: if you can sustain the attack from their quick, explosive guards, you have a chance to gain an edge up front against some less-than-impressive bigs. Sure enough, even as the Raps lost the rebounding battle 42-37, they controlled the paint (52-36 PIP) and secured a few critical offensive rebounds down the stretch. No Raptor was more responsible for that than Valanciunas, who scored a career-high 27 points on 10-11 shooting and 7-8 free throws, including 11 rebounds.
Lou’s big week
A 17-point night wouldn’t typically be enough to warrant a spot in ‘The Good’, but consider this a recognition for Williams’ award-winning week of play. Williams was rewarded for a week that included his career-high 36-point outburst against Cleveland and for being the only NBA’er to average 23+ points while playing fewer than 25 minutes per game.
Bledsoe’s 25 points on 8-16 shooting came from just about anywhere he wanted – from three-point range (3-6), from the line (6-8) and by attacking the lane. He also supported his scoring numbers with seven rebounds, six assists and two steals. Meanwhile, of Thomas’ 16 points on 6-10 shooting, nine came on a trio of made three’s in just over a minute of game time.
Elite athletes from GTA communities were well-represented on Monday night at the ACC. There was Thornhill’s Milos Raonic sitting courtside, not far from Cincinnati Reds slugger and Etobicoke native Joey Votto. Beyond the two high profile GTA’ers sitting in the crowd, there was Brampton’s Tyler Ennis, who didn’t dress for his Toronto debut but was greeted by a large cadre of post-game friends and family.
Is there any team more detrimented by the East/West imbalance than the Phoenix Suns? In the East, the Suns – flawed front line and all – are likely looking at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In the West, they are probably outside looking in on another crowded playoff picture.
The Raps head to Atlanta to battle the Hawks (7:00pm, SN360), who are 5-1 in the friendly confines of the Phillips Arena.
Prediction: Raps 106, Hawks 101 (record this season: 10-3)