EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns jump on Toronto Raptors early for home win

Mar 7, 2024, 11:06 PM | Updated: Mar 8, 2024, 7:46 am

PHOENIX — In a season very much predicated on believing in process over results, the Phoenix Suns are in a results spot right now. They need wins no matter how they come to avoid the play-in.

After slogging through the muck of Tuesday’s shocking victory over the Denver Nuggets, they did enough in a fundamental way to beat the Toronto Raptors on Thursday in a 120-113 final.

“I like what we did. Made shots, moved the ball, 29 assists — pretty good,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said. “[Sixteen] turnovers, could have been better. I had two too many but yeah we moved the ball, shot 50-40-90 almost. Solid game.”

This was a game the Suns simply had to win, playing at home against arguably the worst team it will face the rest of the way without Devin Booker (right ankle sprain) again.

The Raptors (23-40) are 8-15 since trading Pascal Siakam in mid-January, a kind record for an offensive rating that coming into Thursday ranked 25th along with the No. 27 defensive rating across that span. And during that, they’ve lost Scottie Barnes (left hand fracture) and Jakob Poeltl (left finger tear) to long-term injuries while Bruce Brown (left knee inflammation) also did not play.

Thanks to points off turnovers (27 off Phoenix’s 16) and trading back on the 3-point line (16-15 edge), Toronto managed to make this feel like a game all the way through, even after the Suns jumped out to a 19-point lead in the first quarter. It even cut the deficit down to three late in the third quarter.

The Suns led by seven entering the fourth quarter, where the Raptors were their own worst enemy, allowing a wide-open Bradley Beal dunk before a pair of turnovers resulted in two Suns baskets that beefed the advantage back up to a dozen. The brief appearance of momentum to begin a final frame, however, dissipated quickly via a 7-0 Raptors run.

Jusuf Nurkic picked up his fifth foul in the middle of that but part of Phoenix avoiding any dramatics was a few key plays by Drew Eubanks in his place. Nurkic wouldn’t have to re-enter the game.

“I felt like we still had good momentum. … I felt like our defense was solid and we was able to get some good shots on the other end,” Durant said. “It’s just about playing through everything, having resilience and understanding that teams gonna make a run.”

Like Tuesday, this was another victory that had the fingerprints of Grayson Allen and Nurkic all over it.

Allen knocked down a franchise-record seven of his eight 3-pointers in the first quarter as a part of 26 points. Nurkic’s seven turnovers were too many but he still amounted to a very good seven points, 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, with his screening opening up Allen a fair bit.

For as much as expectations do not currently sit where they were at the start of the season, the Suns absolutely knocked the Deandre Ayton trade out of the park in a similar fashion to the infamous Mark McGwire batting practice baseball he sent into orbit through Chase Field’s incredibly large windows. If Phoenix got a mild return back for Ayton, which is more or less what it was viewed as at the time, it would be firmly cemented as a play-in team at this point.

Instead, Allen and Nurkic have been revelations, posting career-best years in regards to their impact to winning. Nassir Little, who was a popular piece of the deal for some experts, has hardly played this year thanks to ailing knee problems. It hasn’t mattered one bit.

Fans have understandably been critical of the job done by the front office given how this is supposed to be a team sitting above the Western Conference in a class with the Nuggets. But even if Ayton was playing to the levels he reached in Phoenix for Portland, the trade altered the franchise’s future for the better by a significant margin.

In the “pick your poison” world the Suns’ roster presents opposing defenses, opponents keep choosing to take a few big gulps of open Allen 3s. For the league’s best 3-point shooter, the result is obviously fatal. And when teams switch it up mid-game after Allen gets hot like Toronto did, it opens up other things.

Allen spoke on how Toronto’s tweaks to contain him opened up several looks for the Suns in the second half. He heard Toronto’s bench yelling “stay on him!” in some of Phoenix’s key actions involving Allen through the motions, one of which resulted in the aforementioned dunk for Beal.

Raptors wing Gradey Dick is supposed to contain this but was told not to leave Allen’s space, so you can see his poor rookie brain get frozen in real time.

“I don’t know what I would do,” Allen said with a laugh. “I’m sure there’s analytics guys out there running the numbers on Kev’s post-ups versus him passing the ball out and us getting 3s. I think at some point it’s matchup dependent. It’s how confident are they and they have a guy that can guard Kev one-on-one or can they guard the ball screen up top 2-on-2 or do you have to pull a third defender in.

“You gotta pick something and when we’re clicking offensively and when we’re at our best no matter what the read is we’re getting good shots.”

Speaking of that, this was a much more by the books performance from Durant after some slight struggles since the All-Star break. The quality of possessions when he was doubled improved and his shot-making in 1-on-1 situations was strong. He ended up with 35 points, two rebounds, an assist and four turnovers on 11-of-19 shooting.

Phoenix wanted to contain Toronto guard Immanuel Quickley, something the former New York Knicks firecracker off the bench is getting used to as someone much higher on the scouting report now. He’s adapting well and dished out a career-high 17 assists to go with 21 points and nine rebounds after being held scoreless in the first quarter.

Barnes, who was an All-Star this year, and Quickley aren’t quite guys with the upside to be top 10 players in the NBA but are going to be very good for a while as the base of the Raptors’ rebuild.

It was the latest stuffing of the stat sheet from Royce O’Neale with 10 points, eight rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block.

Beal produced an efficient 20 points and eight assists with two turnovers. Durant pointed out how it’s a “traditional point guard” role Beal has taken on since Booker got hurt, and head coach Frank Vogel credited Beal for getting the team organized.

“He’s giving up shots for his teammates, he’s penetrating every time trying to kick out,” Durant said. “He’s one of those players that can do everything and any situation you put him in he’s gonna figure it out. He’s an unselfish player so when you’re unselfish and you got the skills he has then you can adapt to anything.”

As far as Booker, there was a limited update from Vogel pregame. Booker hasn’t been able to get in any “bump” on the floor yet. He will travel for Phoenix’s four-game road trip that begins on Sunday. Different reported timelines have indicated a potential return date of either Monday’s fixture in Cleveland or one in Boston three days later.

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