Suns respond to pair of awful losses, compete with Raptors in losing effort
PHOENIX — After the Phoenix Suns had their worst losses of the season on back-to-back nights, some type of response was needed on Tuesday, even with the defending champions as the opponent.
The Suns were able to bring what was necessary, battling with the Raptors in a physical back-and-forth game that ultimately ended in a 123-114 loss.
“The guys battled their tails off,” head coach Monty Williams said after the game.
“Proud of our guys. They keep battling, with all the stuff that happened in the game — so many physical plays tonight.”
What the game ultimately boiled down to was the Raptors had the two best players on the court, and the third name wasn’t all that close. Even without Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, Toronto rode its All-Stars Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.
Siakam had 33 points on 20 shots and Lowry added 28 with five rebounds and six assists. It was either those two or Norman Powell, who had 26 points too, that kept making plays offensively to bring the Raptors back from a first-half deficit as high as 17.
They helped solidify that gap in their star duo and the Suns’ star solo act by going to their ole’ trusty friend from last year’s postseason: the box-and-one defense.
The look that was largely non-existent in the NBA prior to Nurse reviving it has one defender on the opposition’s primary offensive player while the other four help defenders form a box around the key.
The Suns were ready for this, particularly Booker, who manipulated the look into open shots for his wings. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson combined for 14 attempts from three-point range in the first half and Booker and Ricky Rubio each had seven assists.
Nurse’s long bet was that the Suns’ shooting would not sustain and he could bring extra help for ball-handlers and Deandre Ayton inside.
Because of Gasol and Ibaka being out, Toronto had no center outside of Chris Boucher off the bench, who is lucky to be listed at 200 pounds. That meant swarming Ayton inside, stripping at the ball when he got it and forcing other Suns players to beat them. While the Suns shot 8-of-14 from deep to open the game, they went 7-for-25 from that point on to finish a solid 15-of-39 overall.
“I thought we missed a lot of open shots too and there’s not much you can do about that,” Williams said. “You want to generate open looks. We had wide-open threes tonight.”
The still decent efficiency from that range was not enough to outduel Toronto offensively when Booker’s night only amounted to 22 points, with that “only” label being quite unfair considering how the Raptors played him and he got 10 assists out of it (and should have had at least 15 if not for the missed threes).
The eventual wear-and-tear effect of those missed shots brought on the Raptors’ eventual breakthrough to a lead in the mid-third quarter. And just as the Suns made a few shots to take the advantage back in the second half, they would come back missing a few good looks as well, all while the Raptors kept scoring. The outcome of Toronto pulling away everyone saw coming became a reality with under three minutes to go, a credit to how the Suns fought and hung around when Toronto’s first real punch came in the third.
The other gamble for Nurse was also on Ayton not fighting through those double teams and aggressive defensive hands on the ball to draw fouls. It paid off for him, as Ayton was 5-of-14 from the field for 13 points with only four free throw attempts. He had at least 20 touches within six feet of the rim and was fine with making the “right play” by passing to the open shooter instead of muscling the ball up.
Ayton missed a few easy ones around the rim and in the second half was fading from the basket more on his attempts and going to his jumper. He said after the game he was rushing some of his shots because he was feeling the pressure of three-second calls, as the Suns wanted him camped in the key as much as possible with the size mismatch.
Due to the unconventional matchups, Ayton guarded Siakam through stretches of the game and did very well at the start.
As championship teams and coaches do, however, Nurse and his team adjusted, with Siakam taking more perimeter shots and some backscreens by the six-foot-tall Lowry of all people sprinkled in to throw Ayton off.
Ayton admitted they “got” him with a couple of those looks going under screens and the Lowry tomfoolery.
“What the heck? What is this?” Ayton said while playing back those possessions in his head.
So, despite Booker and Ayton not providing a huge scoring lift like they are often capable of, the Suns were in it because it was one of their most well-balanced offensive nights in terms of contributions from everyone.
All five starters reached double figures, including 16 each from Dario Saric and Ricky Rubio, who added 10 assists as well.
Johnson had a career-high 21 points off the bench on his birthday and Jevon Carter added 11. Because of Toronto’s small, fast lineups, Williams did not play backup center Aron Baynes.
On the night the Suns made the news of Kelly Oubre Jr.’s surgery to repair a torn meniscus official, they had injuries to their two top players.
Ayton exited late in the fourth quarter due to what appears to be a left ankle injury.
After the game, Ayton was seen going from the training area to his locker by using crutches. He very gingerly went into the shower room with one crutch and still was careful about putting his weight on the leg when eventually talking with the media.
Ayton downplayed the injury to being like any other sprain he has had in the past and said that deal with the crutches is how it always goes.
Booker, meanwhile, took a shot in the mouth from Lowry on a drive where Booker was given the foul.
Booker was bleeding from the mouth and played out the rest of the game. After the game, he received stitches in his mouth and was not able to discuss the play as his mouth was extremely swollen and numb from said stitches.
The Suns are off a few days before returning to play at home on Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.