Both the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors came out playing tentative, lacking confidence in their game. No surprise since they are two of the seven worst teams in the NBA.
It was the Raptors who woke up to win the game while the Suns never looked right. In fact, for the second time this season, the Suns needed a final-possession score to keep from putting up a franchise-low 68 points.
Last time it was Wesley Johnson with the putback slam. This time, it was Marcus Morris with a 3 from the corner.
So much for four days off. Pregame, Lindsey Hunter responded, "We'll see" when I asked if the long break off a 3-game winning streak would have the young team feeling a little too good about themselves.
Goran Dragic was passing very well in the first, with 6 assists and a handful more great passes that ended in missed open shots. He fed Gortat on the pick-and-roll several times with success, to the tune of 8 quick points for the Polish Machine.
But Gortat went down hard on a Raptor's ankle at the end of the first and never returned. With Jermaine O'Neal already out to tend to his daughter, the Suns were down to fill-ins and a really big Iranian.
As this is going on, the Utah Jazz gave up a late lead to Cleveland, allowing the Cavs to finish the game on a 12-1 run to lose by a point. Well, at least the Lakers were down 19 at halftime. The Jazz wouldn't lose ground in their playoff hunt. Phew.
Enter Hamed Haddadi, activated for the first time since he played in Memphis. Haddadi was predictably lost out there, and the game crawled to a halt.
Sebastian Telfair came out with something to prove, scoring 10 points and dishing 4 assists in 15 minutes - after getting a grand total of SEVEN minutes in his first 6 games with Toronto - while Kendall Marshall just tried to hold the fort (0 points, 1 assist, 1 rebound) for 6 of those minutes. At least Bassy didn't pick his pocket.
When Dragic returned, he'd lost his first-quarter mojo and the Suns were toast. The Morris twins appeared disengaged, to the point where Michael Beasley was the "more focused" of the three.
By halftime, the Raptors were up 14 points and the Suns played like they had just met each other in the locker room earlier that night. The Suns finished the half with 13 turnovers to the Raptors' 4.
Telfair was a +12 in that first half. Did I mention he had gotten a grand total of seven minutes with Toronto in six games since the trade?
As bad as the second quarter went, the third quarter was worse for the Suns. The Suns still had no rhythm.
The Raptors took what they were given, while the Suns kept on giving.
At this goes on, the Los Angeles Lakers overcame a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to the New Orleans Hornets to finish on a 20-0 run to win by 6. 20 to 0. Really, New Orleans? Seriously? Are you an NBA team? You couldn't make one or two shots?
Enter Diante Garrett at PG for the Suns with 5 minutes left in the third and a 16 point deficit. What happened to your bright orange shoes, D?
The game quickly became a giveaway game for the Suns. No worries. They got more of these here home games on the slate.
Goran Dragic, who hurt his lower back in the Suns' last game, was short on his shot all night and not very aggressive in traffic. By the fourth quarter, Dragic was limping.
The Raptors made 10-22 threes (Bassy had 3 of them).
At least this helps their lottery position.
These teams have a lot more in common than meets the eye. This season the Phoenix Suns (21-39) and the Toronto Raptors (23-38) seem to be in denial about rebuilding, battling themselves and their own lottery odds in the process.
One positive is that over the years, the Suns have dominated the Raptors to a tune of 23-9 lifetime.
Someone is going to lose lottery balls tonight, which is what happens when two lottery teams dance this late in the season. The past few years have been different for the Raptors as they went into a full rebuild after losing Chris Bosh: bringing in Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay, drafted Jonas Valanciunas, and shifted to a younger more athletic core. They have not improved dramatically in terms of wins and loses, but are moving in the right direction.
On the side of the coin the Suns have been seemingly fighting the reality that is the rebuild. This game gives the fans a first hand look at what a team with two Top 10 picks and a handful of other young assets can look like. Right now the Raptors are playing a good brand of basketball since the the Gay trade, going 7-7 and showing signs of being a quality team going forward.
The Suns are improving as well, winning their last three games and having a realistic chance at tying their season high (four games) for wins in a row as they host another team in a very similar situation to themselves. These wins have dramatically changed their lottery odds, as will a win tonight.
(Recent) History Lesson
Remember the seven game losing streak earlier in the season? It wasn't all blowouts. In fact, there were a few very close games, including the controversial loss to the Raptors on the road. It was a tough loss to swallow as Luis Scola looked to have been fouled in the paint with a chance to tie the game at the free-throw line. Instead, Kyle Lowry rebounded the ball and iced the game at the line.
Head-to-Head (past four seasons including Playoffs)
Suns: 105.1 PPG (4 wins)
Raptors: 98.6 PPG (2 wins)
Before last season, the Suns had won 14 straight games against the Raptors dating back to 2003. They were the whipping boys for the Suns to an extent. As of late, it has been a closer series with the talent gap closing considerably over the years.
Andrea Bargnani vs. Suns: 19.8 PPG 4.6 RPG 1.1 APG 0.45 BPG 47.6 FG% (11 games)
Luis Scola vs. Raptors: 12.0 PPG 8.8 RPG 1.7 APG 0.54 BPG 45.1 FG% (11 games)
A tale of two power forwards. On one hand, Bargnani has dominated the Suns for his second most points per game and shooting the ball at a great clip. Most of his points come inside and he only ventures out to three-point line when necessary instead of living out there like he can do for whole games. Then you have Scola who has had the most modest games of his career against the Raptors. They hold him to the second fewest points per game in the league.
PG - Goran Dragic v. Kyle Lowry
SG - Jared Dudley v. DeMar DeRozan
PF - Luis Scola v. Andrea Bargnani
C - Marcin Gortat v. Jonas Valanciunas
This season Anderson has put together a great year off of the bench as a scorer, giving them a surprising punch that they were sorely lacking. He is scoring from three, getting to the line, and shooting the ball well all-around on the perimeter. The Suns' counter-punch is Johnson, who has been playing very well as of late. He has developed as the season has progressed, giving the Suns their very own surprise off of the bench. These two will battle it out on the reserve unit to try and give their team an edge.
Interesting Stat: 1.6 more minutes per game
That is all that Toronto is giving Rudy Gay in terms of minutes per game since the trade, not much more than in Memphis, but he is putting up bigger numbers with that extra minute plus. In that extra time, he is scoring 3.7 more points, 0.7 more rebounds, and getting to the free-throw line 1.4 more times per game. He is not shooting the ball any better, actually much worse statistically, but has been playing very good basketball for the improved Raptors. They are 7-7 since acquiring the borderline All-Star.
Meaningless Stat: -3.7
Since the Gay Trade, which at one point was going to be for Suns forward Jared Dudley, he has declined in productivity. Before the trade, Dudley was one of the teams' more consistent performers on both ends of the floor. Well, take a look for yourself to see what he has done since then:
|Feb (since trade)
KTAR620 Arizona Sports writer Craig Grialou had a chance to talk to Sebastian Telfair in a conversation that was quite revealing as to how Telfair felt his situation was handled.
"I'm bitter," he said. "I'm a little bitter. I don't have nothing personal against (my former teammates), love them guys but I'm bitter. I'm a little bitter. For one, I got to pick up and leave my family, my kids. Forget the business part of it, I've got to leave my kids home, by themselves now and I'm all the way in Toronto so (expletive) yeah, I'm bitter.
Sebastian Telfair is bitter. I'm not surprised. I think I might be too.
First he got benched, but still said he wanted to remain in Phoenix (disclaimer - he also mentioned that if he were traded he would like to go to a contending team). Then the Suns traded him to a lottery team when he wanted to go to a contender. Sure he has friends there, but I think most basketball players want to compete more than hang with their buddies.
"I think last year we competed a lot better. I understand they're going in a new direction, but I wished we would've known that this summer. I really can't understand it. I'm not mad at nobody, but I don't understand it."
My first takeaway was actually about our "positive" culture. Of course it's a business but when the Suns keep professing that they are a destination and are changing the culture, it doesn't hold the line when ex-players are calling them bush league. Let's not turn this into a pity party for Telfair, though. This isn't a charity or YMCA league. The Suns need to develop youth and a draft pick helps more than letting Telfair's contract expire. Telfair wouldn't be the first malcontent to rail out against his former team but to be honest, I didn't think the Suns handled the situation well either.
Like Kris Habbas of BSotS said when he and I first discussed the culture change, "Not all change is good."
Suns GM Lance Blanks would disagree with a pernicious change sentiment, as evidenced by him speaking out about the team improving the culture and developing fertile soil for players directly after the move that sent Telfair to the Raptors. Lance and I may have slightly varying viewpoints.
I still find it hard to believe that the Suns couldn't have gotten a second rounder from a playoff team, so I found it interesting that he landed in Toronto.... but a second rounder from a lottery team could be a lot better than a contending one. Plus there's the Haddadi factor. That's huge.
This just adds to a series of questionable moves and adds scrutiny to the way the Suns have handled player and personnel moves. There appears to be a problem with the way the Suns have handled the dialogue with both players and coaches that have been casualties of the attrition and changing of the guard this season. The list of players and coaches that have felt alienated by the team this season continues to grow.
In the final analysis though, this is a business and Telfair should (and I believe does) know that. Sometimes you have to suck it up and sometimes it's better to remain reticent than openly bitter. Recent departures by Gentry, Nash, Hill, and Stoudemire were definitely handled more diplomatically and professionally. I understand that Sebastian's feelings are hurt, but he could, and probably should, have acquitted himself in a more favorable light.
So is this another case of mishandling player relations or is it just the business side of the NBA? Maybe it's both and they are just inseparable because of the nature of the beast.