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The Phoenix Suns wrap up a six game road trip with a skirmish against the Eastern Conference leading Toronto Raptors. Can the Suns stretch their winning streak to five and head home on a positive note?

When: Monday, November 24, 2014, 5:30 PM local time (7:30 EST)

Where: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON

Watch/Listen: TV: FOX Sports Arizona  Radio: Arizona Sports 98.7 FM

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Last Meeting:

The Suns beat the Raptors 121-113 in Toronto on March 16, 2014. Sometimes results from previous seasons don't have much bearing, but the Raptors return all five starters and the Suns return eight of the ten players who participated in that game. Phoenix controlled the fourth quarter of the game, leading by double digits for the better part of it and never letting the Raptors get closer than eight points.

The Suns bench was big time in the victory, with Markieff Morris recording a double-double (16 points and 14 rebounds) and Gerald "the human torch" Green punishing Toronto's defense to the tune of 28 points with five three pointers. Kyle Lowry had 28 points and 13 assists in a losing effort.

Phoenix also beat Toronto 106-97 on December 6, 2013, giving them a 2-0 season series sweep.

Team Bios:

Phoenix Suns: 9-5

Points per game: 105.3 (4th)     Points against: 102.1 (23rd)

ORtg: 107.8 (11th)     DRtg: 104.5 (11th)

Full team statistics.

The Suns have gotten healthy on the road by eating a steady diet of crappy Eastern Conference opponents. The combined records of Phoenix's last four foes is an ignominious 12-39. That's ridiculous.

The Suns' next adversary, the Toronto Raptors, has just one less victory (11) than those four teams combined. Double ridiculous.

After scraping out a couple tough victories to start their East coast trip life has been easier for the Suns in their last two games. Gerald Green scored 18 points in the first half against Indiana and the Suns pulled away in the third quarter to lay a savage beating (106-83) on a depleted Pacers team in their last game on Saturday night.

Phoenix is still playing without a definitive alpha, with five players averaging between 13.4 and 15.4 points per game. The Suns have had a different leading scorer in each of their last four victories. A recurring theme has been materializing, though, with Gerald Green and Isaiah Thomas doing heavy lifting off the bench. The duo is by far the most prolific in per minute scoring on the team, providing instant offense as reserves.

Toronto Raptors: 11-2

Points per game: 106.9 (2nd)     Points against: 94.7 (6th)

ORtg: 114.1 (2nd)     DRtg: 101.0 (5th)

Full team statistics.

The Raptors are one of the more surprising teams in the league and are off to their best start in franchise history. The team returned a core that went 48-34 last season and appears to be much improved. All of this leads to the question...

How good is Toronto?

While the Raptors have benefited from a home heavy schedule to start the season, going 8-1 in nine home games, they are laying waste to their opponents. Toronto is +12.2 in point differential and have beaten seven teams by double digits. Currently, the team is in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating. While Toronto is 7-0 against sub .500 opponents, the team also has victories against the Washington Wizards (9-3, second in the Eastern Conference) and Memphis Grizzlies (12-2, first in the Western Conference).

Toronto's most recent victim was the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers, who squandered an 18 point first quarter lead on the way to getting bulldozed by the Raptors, 110-93. Louis Williams, yes the Louis Williams, exploded for 36 points off the bench in the contest.

DeMar DeRozan leads the Raptors in scoring with 20.0 points per game, while Kyle Lowry is averaging 18.8 to go along with a team high 6.0 assists a game.

What To Watch For:

The routinely erratic contributions the Suns have been receiving across the board make it pretty hard to peg any individual battles to keep an eye on. The team seems to go nine deep with players that could disappear or dominate on a nightly basis.

- Will Alex Len continue to make an impact? He continues to show new wrinkles that adumbrate auspiciously for the future.

- Will Goran Dragic bust out of a nearly season long funk that has seen him look painfully average? The Dragon has been mostly sputtering smoke, with a paltry average of 3.1 assists and only two 20 point performances through 14 games. Last season Goran scored 20+ 37 times out of 76 games.

The Final Word(s):

I like this matchup for the Suns.

Phoenix is already 4-1 on this road trip, taking care of the teams they should beat. A win against Toronto would be whipped topping on the pumpkin pie.

I like Green and/or Thomas to upstage Louis Williams and propel the Suns to victory, 108-101.

The Suns will head north looking for their fifth consecutive road-win today, as they’ll take on the Toronto Raptors. The Suns have managed to put together a pretty nice win streak, albeit against...

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Rookie Alex Len has already made a big impression early on in his second season. Should he replace Miles Plumlee as the starting Suns' starting center?

Last year, Alex Len was the fifth overall pick for the Phoenix Suns in the 2013 NBA Draft.  The 7' 1" Ukrainian big man, by way of Maryland in college, was the first center taken in the draft, including the player who many viewed as being the top ranked prospect overall, Nerlens Noel.

The Suns saw Alex as the long term answer to their starting center position.  But with a rookie year in which he was mostly sidelined recovering from ankle surgeries, it was uncertain just how good he could be.

At the same time, the Suns also received a surprise contributor last season from a trade with the Indiana Pacers that brought Miles Plumlee to Phoenix...a second year player at the time who was essentially a rookie after registering only 55 minutes in his first season.

Plumlee started out hot last season and then began to fall back to Earth as the season wore on.  Meanwhile, Alex Len is now healthy and has been making a noticeable impact off the bench.  Even in less minutes, Len is averaging more points than Plumlee, while shooting a higher percentage. Although Miles has remained a solid contributor, his lack of offensive production has caused many to wonder... Is it time for Alex Len to step into the starting position?

So let's take a look at the numbers thus far, and see if they provide an answer to that question

Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Per Game Comparison

Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Per 36 Comparison

Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Advanced Comparison

Looking at the stats, you can see that both Miles Plumlee and Alex Len are posting fairly similar numbers per game.  Of course, this changes when you look at the Per 36 numbers, and the advanced stats where Alex has a pretty clear advantage in nearly every category.

However, these numbers just compare their individual numbers, so they only tell part of the story.  The real question is, what kind of impact are they having on the team when they're on the court?

Fortunately, there are stats for that too...Here's a look at the numbers comparing both Miles and Alex with the rest of the starting line-up:

Basic

Len, Plumlee Lineup Comparision Traditional Stats

At first glance, this appears as if Miles has the advantage.  However, the basic stats can be a little unreliable when comparing averages with such a large minute disparity. According to this, it looks like the team performs much better with Plumlee in the line-up.  But the sample sizes are very lopsided, which causes the averages to look much different from reality.  In this case, the advanced stats will give us a more accurate representation.

Advanced

Len, Plumlee Lineup Comparision Advanced Stats

Now we see a completely different story. The numbers you really want to focus on here are the OffRtg (average points scored per 100 possessions) , DefRtg (average points allowed per 100 defensive possessions), and NetRtg (the difference between the offensive points scored and the defensive points allowed).

Looking at the numbers from each of these line-ups, it seems pretty clear that the starting line-up has been playing better overall with Alex Len among the other four starters than with Miles Plumlee.  In fact, the starting line-up with Plumlee in it has a negative net rating, meaning they are giving up more points on defense than they are scoring on offense.  With Len in the line-up, that changes to the Suns scoring 17.5 points on average more than they are allowing on defense, per 100 possessions each.

However, it's also worth noting that we are comparing 173 minutes of play with Plumlee in the starting line-up, to only 42 minutes with Len playing along side those same players.  It is certainly possible that those numbers could drop a bit with extended time.  Still this gives us a fairly good indication of the overall positive effect of Len...not only with his individual play, but how he is impacting the team as well.

So, Should Alex Len Be The Suns' Starting Center?

Well, it certainly appears that way based on the numbers.

But here's the thing...While it's easy to look at the numbers and see that Alex is outperforming Miles in nearly every category, there are still other factors to consider.

Suns coach Hornacek is undoubtedly still toying with the line-ups and wants to be cautious before making any changes.  Len is still basically a rookie, and he probably wants to see how he will respond to the increased minutes before throwing him into the starting line-up.

Hornacek actually gave a bit of insight into this the other day in an article from Paul Coro of the AZ Republic, where he indicated that he was looking to split the minutes evenly between Plumlee and Len, with each getting about five to six minutes at a time to keep them fresh and energized.

In my opinion, this is the first step to seeing how Len responds to increased playing time without changing the starting unit.  If Len can continue to impress while playing more minutes each game, I'm sure the change will eventually be made.

At the moment, the Suns seem to be doing just fine as is.  Allowing Miles to continue starting in the short term while Alex continues to adjust to playing big minutes, and gaining more and more confidence with every game, is working out pretty well for all parties involved.

Either way, it seems pretty clear that Alex Len will eventually take over as the Suns' starting big man this season.

It's only a matter of time.

Poll
Is It Time For Alex Len To Start For The Suns?

  902 votes | Results

The Jam played two scintillating games this week, losing to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in Triple OT on Tuesday, and beating Reno in regulation on Friday.

The Jam faced two tough opponents this week in the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the solo affiliate of the Houston Rockets and the Reno Bighorns, the solo affiliate of the Sacramento Kings.

The Jam were defeated by RGV in a triple overtime thriller, 151-148. The Jam were led by Elijah Millsap, who put up a triple double; Xavier Munford, who was 2 rebounds shy of a triple double; and Earl Barron, who had 30 points and 15 rebounds. RGV was led by assignee Nick Johnson, who scored 39 points, and former Sun Earl Clark, who had 35 points and 11 rebounds.

Against the Bighorns, the Jam managed to put one in the win column, pulling away late to finish up 154-143. And no, that wasn't in overtime. The Jam enjoyed strong performances from Mac Koshwal (28 points on 13-14 shooting), Munford (31 points) and Millsap (26 points), while the Bighorns were led by Ra'Shad James (25 points) and Brady Heslip (23 points).

Jam vs. Vipers

In the first game for the Jam that didn't feature Tyler Ennis and T.J. Warren, who left the team to rejoin the Suns, the team faced the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Vipers are known for their heavy reliance on the three point shot, and this game did not fail to meet that expectation. The Vipers threw up 43 three pointers, hitting 20 of them. The Jam struggled all night to contain the three point shooting, and it was what ended up killing them in the waning minutes.

The team struggled to find efficient scoring without Warren and Ennis. Despite the fact that he was able to put up a triple double, Millsap shot only 26% on 31 shots. Ball handling also became a difficulty, with 20 turnovers in the game.

A bright spot for the team was the emergence of Munford. In the first two games, Munford had been relatively quiet coming off of the bench behind Ennis. Thrust into the starting role again, Munford delivered well this game. One area of potential concern for the rookie is ball-handling. While 5 turnovers is not terrible considering the three overtimes, this is an area Munford will definitely need to improve on in the future.

The poor play from starters Jamil Wilson and Casey Prather was rather unexpected. RGV does not feature particularly strong wings (Johnson was the primary ball handler), and as such this should have been a game where both players could thrive. However, they both shot poorly, Wilson in particular, and Prather got into foul trouble that forced him to the bench for a time.

Overall, you cannot be too disappointed with a triple overtime loss to a team that features 2 NBA assignees.

Jam vs. Bighorns

In their second game of the week, the Jam took on the Reno Bighorns. The Bighorns recently hired a coach tied to Grinnell College, the Division III team well known for its frenetic offense and the exploits of its leading scorer, Jack Taylor. The Bighorns have been given free rein by the Kings front office to run the same kind of fast paced, zero-defense system. Through the teams first few games, 6'1 guard Brady Heslip has been the embodiment of this philosophy, and become something of a media darling, even being featured in a New York Times article.

The Bighorns ended up being the victims of Mac Koshwal's coming out party for the season. After 3 mostly ho-hum games, Koshwal came out firing this game, and hit 13 of his 14 shots for 28 points. Millsap managed to have a much more efficient game against Reno, hitting 7 of 17 shots and having only 5 turnovers.

The team at times struggled to keep up with the frantic pace, but were helped by strong performances from the bench players. Robert Vaden (15 points), Chris Wright (10 points) and Renaldo Major (12 points) combined to shoot almost 70% off the bench, including 60% from 3.

While the team was able to produce offensively, they were not terribly successful in containing the Bighorns' offense. Considering Coach Nate Bjorkgren is known as favoring a more active defensive style than the Suns' standard style, he couldn't have been all that happy with the overall defensive effort.

Next Up

Tuesday, November 25th at 7 pm - Bakersfield Jam vs. Santa Cruz Warriors - Live on Youtube

Friday, November 28th at 5 pm - Bakersfield Jam vs. Texas Legends - Live on Youtube

Saturday, November 30th at 5 pm - Bakersfield Jam vs. Texas Legends - Live on Youtube

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