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Game Preview: Suns home to host East contender Raptors

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

What: Phoenix Suns (9-23) vs. Toronto Raptors (22-9)

When: 7:00 PM, AZ Time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


The gauntlet continues.

The Suns come home to face their 10th playoff-bound team out of 14 games this month. So far, the Suns are 1-8 against such teams, with their only win being a thriller at home against former coach Jeff Hornacek’s New York Knicks.

Now the Suns close out a difficult December with a home against the East’s second-best team, the Toronto Raptors, and a New Year’s Eve tilt in Utah against the surging Jazz.

2017 can’t come fast enough.

The Raptors

Before losing to Golden State late last night, the Raptors had won 12 of 14 games to take a clear hold on the #2 position in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors are a beautiful enigma. They boast the very best offense in the entire league - in terms of points per possession - despite gearing their offense around the least valuable shot on the floor.

Despite being 21st in the league in three-point attempts, the Raps lead the league in points-per-possession by getting to the line at the highest frequency and - unbelievably - taking mid-range shot after mid-range shot.

DeMar DeRozan is one of the best shooting guards in the league despite taking more than half his shots in the area between the paint and the three-point line, and nearly 78% of them between 3-22 feet.

The other Raptors make up for DeRozan, with Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross and DeMarre Carroll taking 48%+ of all their shots from behind the three-point line.

Inside, Jonas Valenciunas and the other bigs take all their shots right at the rim whenever possible.

The Raps defense is only 19th-ranked in the league, but their juggernaut offense more than makes up for it.

The Suns

Coach Earl Watson heard the pleas from fans to play Dragan Bender more, and Watson and Bender have both delivered in a big way.

Bender played 27 minutes in each of the last two games, scoring 21 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, and sprinkling in a little of everything else to show the league why he was the #4 pick in the draft and what made him such a unique prospect for the past few years.

But with a deep roster of interchangeable parts, something had to give. Someone or someones had to lose a lot of playing time to get Bender those minutes.

The biggest loser has been Jared Dudley. Dudley is one of the Suns only “positive” players this year, but has not gotten consecutive DNP-CDs from the coach in order to find time for Bender.

Watson has said many times that it’s very difficult to manage a rotation deeper than 10 players, and indeed there’s no NBA team that consistently goes 11-14 deep unless there’s a blowout.

Let’s see if Watson rotates the DNP-CDs among several players to keep Bender out there, or if Dudley is the only victim of having too many playable players. It’s one thing to be a team-first player. It’s quite another to completely lose your rotation spot.

Key matchup

Second year guard Devin Booker is in one helluva slump, shooting 42% on the season and 32% on threes. At this point, we might just have to accept that a 20-year old isn’t an immediate savior. Booker will likely be much better in subsequent years, but this year he’s struggling to deliver against the league’s best defenders while trying to guard the best scorers at the same time.

Tonight, he will likely take some time trying to contain All-Star 28-point scorer DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan, you might recall, had his own difficult transition to NBA stardom. He had a breakout season at age 21, but then regressed a bit in his third year at age 22, shooting only 42% that season. But the Raptors didn’t give up on DeRozan and two years later he delivered his first All-Star season at age 24.

We might ought to be patient with Devin Booker as he finds his game. And be patient with everyone you think is “holding him down”. Booker is 20. And every night he’s expected to be the Suns’ best player while garnering the most defensive attention. That’s the best indoctrination he’s going to get.

Prediction

I can’t see any outcome besides a Suns loss to the Raptors tonight.

But there’s a chance: it’s entirely possible that the Suns can win the same way they beat the Pistons and Hawks last month and the Knicks this month.

Those games were under the same circumstances, with a quality East team hitting Phoenix on a mid-week roadie looking for an easy win.

But the difference here is that the Suns are on a back-to-back of their own - where they are 1-4 this season in the second game of a back to back (SEGABABA).

There’s a chance the Suns win tonight, but don’t lose any money betting on it.