The Toronto Raptors have found themselves in a very uncomfortable position.
Thursday's NBA trade deadline has come and gone and the Raptors are trying to toe the middle line between contention and rebuilding. They didn't trade away Kyle Lowry, yet moved Norman Powell to the Portland Trail Blazers to kickstart a retooling. So what are we supposed to make of this team? The Raptors still fashion themselves as contenders this season, but Friday night's 104-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns showed that they're still stuck in no man's land.
Toronto can't seem to find any consistency this season. For three quarters they were constantly up and down against Phoenix, unable to stop the Suns in the paint with any sort of regularity. Suddenly, late in the fourth quarter, that flipped. The Raptors began to lock it down, clawing out of a double-digit deficit to pull to within two. OG Aunoby held his own on essentially everyone the Suns had to offer and with the clock winding down he put the clamps on Devin Booker to force up an errant shot to give the Raptors a chance.
"We were able to switch out on the point guard whether it was [Chris] Paul or Booker with OG and we were able to at least organize our backline as well," Nurse said. "That ended up being our best coverage by a longshot and it was our best coverage because the guy with the ball ended up shooting I think pretty much every one and he didn't make any, so it was obviously good defense. So, yeah, was he was guarding all kinds of guys tonight, he did a good job."
If only the Raptors could grab a defensive rebound.
Instead, the Suns snagged the ball, hit their free throws, and snuck away with the win.
And now, the Raptors remain stuck in the middle. If Toronto was really deadset on contending this season, not only would Powell still be around, but they would have made a move to upgrade the centre rotation. In all likelihood, there is still a move coming. Raptors coach Nick Nurse all but said as much prior to Friday night's game, suggesting Toronto would go shopping in the buyout market to fill its empty roster spots.
Until then, however, these losses are going to continue to pile up. Deandre Ayton and the Suns' guards had their way with Aron Baynes and Toronto's undersized bigs. They ran pick and roll over and over again, taking advantage of Baynes' lack of mobility to score 58 points in the paint with relative ease.
It was a rare off night for Lowry who has been so good lately. He couldn't quite find a rhythm offensively, shooting just 33% from the field, but an off night can be forgiven considering everything he went through Thursday as his name swirled in trade rumours all afternoon.
"It was a crazy day, there were things that were being said and told and operated on but at the end of the day, like I said the other day, everything happens for a reason," Lowry said of the deadline. "I think they felt I was valuable to be here and be a part of this franchise for a long time and I think that was a big thing."
Toronto's newbies, Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood, were fine. Trent got the start and made his first bucket of the night midway through the first on a pull-up mid-range floater, a shot he's particularly fond of.
"Yeah, I thought he was good, obviously it's difficult to come in," Nurse said of Trent. "I liked his aggression on defence most of all, he'll learn what we're doing, and I thought he had some really good possessions defensively, he was aggressive and executed the stuff we asked him to execute at a super high level, so that's a great thing to see."
Pascal Siakam did the bulk of the heavy lifting. He made it three straight impressive games since his altercation with Nurse following the Raptors loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last Sunday. His only issue these days seems to be a very inconsistent 3-point shot that opposing teams have left almost completely unguarded lately. He finished with 26 points but was 0-for-6 from 3-point range.
Up Next: Portland Trail Blazer
The Raptors will see an old friend on Sunday night when Norman Powell makes his Tampa return alongside Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers at 7 p.m. on Sunday.