Raptors take unusual approach to halting slump with much-needed win over Suns

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When the regular gas ain’t working, try the new gas.

The Toronto Raptors have been listing, slumping, sputtering – pick an adjective. Brows were furrowed. Anxiety was high.

But maybe all they need was right there before their eyes. Like Gary Trent Jr. – a reluctant passer under any circumstance and maybe especially so while in the midst of one of his trademark heaters – making like a point guard and driving and kicking to a wide-open shooter in the corner.

Hey, a smart basketball play, well done. Except in this case, the wide-open shooter was rookie centre Christian Koloko, who had never hit a three in his 33-game NBA career until that point.

But Koloko squared up and stroked it like Klay Thompson might and it was never in doubt. The unusual play sequence capped an unusual game and helped seal and much-needed 113-104 win for the Raptors over the visiting Phoenix Suns.

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The win halted the Raptors five-game home losing streak and gave Toronto just its fifth win in 16 games as their record improved to 16-20. The struggling Suns, playing without starters Devin Booker and Cam Thomas, fell to 20-17. They were led by Chris Paul who scored 20 points and added 12 assists.

The Raptors were led by Trent Jr. who responded to being reinserted into the starting lineup by putting up 35 points on 22 shots, grabbing five rebounds and making two assists including the key one to Koloko came on the heels of a tie-breaking three by Scottie Barnes and put Toronto up by six with 1:48 to play.

It was just the edge the Raptors needed and sends them into the New Year on a positive note after a very difficult stretch of games where emotions were running high. The game was unusual in that Toronto forced the Suns into a season-high 27 turnovers but couldn’t separate themselves.

Whether this will spark anything or just relieve the mood around the club, it was more than welcome.

Still reverberating around Scotiabank Arena were the comments that Nurse had made following the Raptors loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night, Nurse had been as clear-cut in his criticism of his team’s play as he had been at any time in his five-year tenure. Saying aspects were “as bad as it gets” and called their effort “unacceptable” as their home losing streak stretched to five.

Playing the second night of a rare home back-to-back, the Raptors didn’t have a pre-game shootaround, instead opting for a 20-minute video session that was very much run by Nurse, rather than a more collaborative back-and-forth, which is common at the pro level.

“There was one voice,” said Nurse, making clear who was doing the speaking.

The message?

“As you [saw] last night live, it wasn’t that great to show,” said Nurse. “… It’s very simple, foundational things that we’ve got to get better … I’m probably not gonna air on the soft side of saying, ‘It was just a one-night thing.’ I’m gonna show them the good, bad, and ugly. I’m gonna show them that I’m not backing away from any of that stuff. I’m gonna show them what they need to do better. That’s the only way I think I can teach ‘em.”

The Raptors first quarter was as close to textbook as Nurse could have wished for. The Raptors were challenging passes all over the floor and swooping in on unsuspecting ball handlers to jar the ball away. Toronto started the game off by forcing the Suns into a shot-clock violation for their first turnover and had both Siakam and Anunoby hit threes in the early going, always a promising sign.

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Toronto had forced four turnovers by the time the game was five minutes old, and things were going so well that Anunoby had found Koloko twice on tight little interior passes – once on a drive and drop-off to Koloko in the ‘dunker’s spot’ just left of the basket and on another when Anunoby and Koloko combined on perfectly executed pick-and-roll.

The Suns were keeping themselves in it by hitting the shots they did get – they shot 66.7 per cent in the first quarter but took only 15 shots. The Raptors were at 45.1 per cent but had 22 field goal attempts and were 5-of-12 from deep as they jumped out to a doubtless nerves-easing 33-24 lead after 12 minutes.

But sustained success has been an issue for Toronto, as has been guarding the three-point line. The Sun started the second quarter on a 13-2 run fueled by threes by Damion Lee, Dario Saric, and Ish Wainright, who was a late cut in training camp for Toronto in 2021-22. A 12-0 run by Toronto pushed their lead back to 10 before a four-point play by Chris Paul sparked another push by the Suns who were only a missed three at the horn from taking the lead into the half.

Instead, it was the Raptors who led 53-51 but given Toronto has somehow forced the Suns in to 15 turnovers and allowed Phoenix to shoot 57.6 per cent from the floor and 50 per cent from deep, there was cause for concern.

The decision to start Trent Jr. looked inspired in the early going of the third quarter as the shooting guard had eight points in just over three minutes on a floater, a four-point play as he was fouled on a three-pointer and a steal and a dunk as part of a 10-3 that pushed Toronto’s lead to 11, though it was trimmed back to 10 when Trent Jr. was called for a technical foul after being judged to have stared down Josh Okogie, who unsuccessfully tried to block Trent Jr. at the rim.

The call was debatable but understandable. It didn’t deter Trent Jr. who scored over Paul on a jumper off a ball screen to push his total to 12 for the quarter and gave the Raptors a 10-point lead. They caught an unlucky break when Anunoby – in the midst of an excellent all-round game – was called for his fifth foul on a charge that required a coach’s challenge by the Suns to clarify after it was initially called a block.

The Raptors were up six with 5:55 to play in the third when Anunoby sat, but Trent Jr. kept rolling as he ended up with 18 in the third as Toronto led 86-79 to start the fourth.

The Raptors were able to hang on and – thanks to Trent Jr.’s playmaking and Koloko’s sharpshooting – close it out.





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