“Right now, we have no swag to us right now. There’s nothing to us. Teams are looking at us like, ‘Alright, let’s go eat.’”
“This is probably unchartered territory for most of us. Speaking for myself, I’ve never been a part of something like this … Nobody’s coming to save us. We’ve gotta do this ourselves. Probably do a little soul searching.”
“We’re just not making it hard enough. It’s not any one person, in particular, it seems to be spreading. And it’s one of our strengths, really, it used to be one of our strengths when we really guarded penetration well and we’re not guarding it very well at all right now.”
The Toronto Raptors arrive in the Valley with a 1-5 record ahead of Wednesday’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns. That first quote is guard Kyle Lowry on the team’s toughness. The second is guard Fred VanVleet on the team’s mood and the last is head coach Nick Nurse on Toronto’s defense.
The Raptors are two years off an NBA championship via one of the best defensive groups the league has seen. Even after losing Kawhi Leonard last year, they still took the Boston Celtics to seven games in the bubble and proved they were no aberration.
While they lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in free agency, Toronto still has the core of Lowry, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, along with adding former Sun Aron Baynes to help the frontcourt. FiveThirtyEight projected them as a top-four seed in the East and ESPN had them second.
The Raptors, of course, are in a unique situation. Due to health and safety protocols in Canada for the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to start the season with home being Tampa, Florida.
But while taking that into consideration, they still should not be one of the NBA’s worst teams through the first two weeks of the season. But here they are, one of two NBA teams with less than two wins.
The Raptors are 14th in defense and 26th in offense, per Cleaning the Glass. They play very much like a team trying to figure itself out, recently getting smacked by the Celtics on Monday, a game that had a 26-point Toronto deficit in the fourth quarter.
Toronto takes 45% of its shots from three-point range, a league-leading 44.8 a night. That’s not how their roster is constructed to function, but while in an offensive rut, they’re generating looks the defense is often fine with compromising on.
Any room for the likes of Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam to do their high level of playmaking as ball-handlers is often being restricted to making the right pass to an average (at best) shooter.
Siakam (30.0%, 6.0 a game) and Anunoby (25.0%, 6.0 a game) are really struggling on that volume. So, throw in Lowry and VanVleet trying to snap the team out of it with a load of pull-up 3s at a combined 15-of-50 (30.0%) and that’s enough to arrive at a 33.5% number for a team, tied for 25th leaguewide.
Suns head coach Monty Williams was adamant ahead of Wednesday that his team will be focused on themselves instead of letting Toronto’s current situation influence their own mentality.
“Our challenge is us,” Williams said Tuesday. “We just lost a game also that we felt like we could have won, so we’re no different than Toronto. They’re desperate. We play with an urgency and desperation every night, so our challenge is to play to our standard. Not base what we do on what another team is feeling or their situation.”
Either way, whatever Raptors team shows up will make the matchup interesting from a Suns perspective, as much as the eighth game of the season could be.
Firstly, the Suns obviously want to prove they can take care of business and not play down to the Raptors’ level if Toronto proceeds to come out like they have to start the year.
But if Toronto starts knocking down shots and can let its offense set up its defense, a fluid transition Mikal Bridges has talked about benefitting the Suns, that’s where it will be a little bit of a fork in the road. Here’s why.
Phoenix has won through its defense thus far as the offense continues to come together at a slow tempo. The Suns are 29th in pace, per NBA.com, down nearly five points off the mark last season under Williams that saw them finish ninth.
The metric itself is funky and often doesn’t tell the whole story, as Williams said Tuesday when asked about it. Certain metrics can be valuable to look at it to tell the story on something specific and pace is not that. It’s more of an indicator, and what it indicates is the Suns are playing slower this year.
Williams said the team is aware of it and doesn’t want to be near the bottom, where they are.
“Probably not where we want it,” Williams added, noting he wants the offense to be efficient more than anything else.
But as the Suns play at that pace on Wednesday, they’ll be facing a Raptors defense that has finished first, fourth and fourth in halfcourt defense the last three years, respectively. Even while working through some issues to open this season, the Raptors are fifth in 2020-21, a mainstay of their identity that isn’t going anywhere.
When Phoenix had 10 turnovers in the first 15 minutes of Sunday’s loss to the Clippers, Williams said postgame a problem was they were playing too slow. Now, your brain likely makes you think of Seven Seconds or Less teams sprinting up and down the court, but Williams is referring to the movement in the half-court more than that.
The Suns are averaging the longest possessions in the NBA right now, according to pbpstats.com. That’s not where you want to be against the Raptors and Wednesday will be a great test for the offense to work out some kinks.