When: Thursday, 5:30 PM AZ Time
Where: Up in the Great White North
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
The hits just keep on coming. Tonight, the West cellar dweller Phoenix Suns get another chance to beat one of the best teams in the league.
The Toronto Raptors are have won the second-most games in the East in their quest to convince Kawhi Leonard to stay in Canada long term. Part of the challenge is keeping him happy all year, but a larger part is simply how they do in the playoffs and we won’t know about that till the hometown Suns are off on summer vacation.
Stats: 7th on offense, 9th on defense, 17th in pace
Kawhi has been absolutely incredible for the Raptors this year, putting him squarely into the league’s Most Valuable Player race. And what’s different about Kawhi than anyone the Raps have had is that Kawhi has — over his career — been even better in the playoffs.
Meantime, Kawhi is toying with the East. He’s posting career highs in points (27.6 per game), rebounds (7.9), free throws (7.7), while also posting 3.1 assists and 1.9 steals each night.
Their breakout star is Pascal Siakam. You don’t know who he is, but he’s probably their second or third best player this season, and might squeak into a shallow All-Star team in the West. He is averaging 15 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and a steal each night.
Oh, and they are two of the best wing defenders in the league, helping the Raptors become a Finals threat on both ends of the floor.
Serge Ibaka has had a reSergance this year, Kyle Lowry is one of the best assist men in the league, and a host of supporting players help the Raptors run right through the East on their way to a high seed.
Stats: 29th on offense, 28th on defense, 15th in pace
It feels like we’ve failed to get enough enjoyment out of the Suns best month of games in many years, going 7-10 over their last 17 games. Over that 7-10 stretch, the Suns are expectedly better in the statistical realm, ranking 22nd on offense and 23rd on defense, while rising to 11th in pace.
I mean, this isn’t earth shattering by any means, but it’s major progress when you consider the Suns haven’t had a winning stretch like this in years. YEARS.
The Suns most improved player in that 17-game stretch has to be Josh Jackson. Jackson’s contributions are not eye-popping, but 10.9 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists look better when you consider he’s made a respectable 43% of shots, including 36% on threes, and an overall plus on the scoreboard (plus-0.4 points per game).
What might be helping Jackson is to see his left-handed twin on the court a lot in Kelly Oubre Jr., who has had two more years of NBA experience to develop that high-energy game into fairly consistent results. Oubre has contributed almost 14 points on 45% shooting. He’s not much of a playmaker or rebounder, but he defends with effort and makes big shots on occasion.
Baby steps, Suns fans.
The Suns and Raps faced off in Phoenix in early November, with the Raps pulling away in the closing minutes to beat the Suns 107-98.
Deandre Ayton set a career high with 18 rebounds to go along with 17 points, 2 assists and 2 blocks. Isaiah Canaan had one of his best games, scoring a team-high 19 points on 8-12 shooting.
For that Suns team, Trevor Ariza and Canaan got big minutes in the starting lineup, while Elie Okobo and Ryan Anderson led the team in bench minutes. Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges combined for a total of 21 minutes off the bench.
Players to watch
Remember when Nate Duncan said most NBA teams would rather have the Raptors’ Danny Green than Devin Booker? You can decide for yourself tonight as they will likely defend each other pretty often in this game.
Booker had that rough return from his back injury on Tuesday, making only 4 of 14 shots and racking up as many fouls as assists (5 each) in the eleventy billion point loss to the Pacers. Earlier in the season, the Raps defense held Booker to 18 points on 8-20 shooting.
For the Suns to win this game, Booker is going to have to have a good shooting and passing night, and his teammates are going to have to be active around him while making half or more of their shots.
Sorry Suns fans. Just look for silver linings within another sure loss.