Game No. 18: Raptors 99, Suns 96

Despite another sluggish start and early double-digit deficit, the Raptors were able to battle back on the road in Phoenix for just their fifth win of the season. The game was won between the second and third quarters, when the Raptors put together their first back-to-back 30-point quarters of the season.

In addition to snapping an eight-game losing streak, the Raptors also beat the Suns for the first time since February 10, 2004, and for the first time since November 2, 2001, they beat a Steve Nash-led team.

Now here are my thoughts on the game:

1- It’s a bit easier to get some offence going and get a W when you have an All-Star in the lineup, and I continue to believe that’s the caliber of play Andrea Bargnani is bringing this season. Despite missing six games with a strained calf and being out of action for 13 days, Bargnani picked up right where he left off. Sure, he got off to a slow start offensively (0-of-4 from the floor), but he was still doing the little things on the floor and staying aggressive, which told me he was mentally into the game and just needed to get his timing back.

What I didn’t anticipate was how quickly that timing would return. Bargnani exploded for 18 points in the third quarter alone, when the Raptors really turned the tide in the ball game, and finished with a game-high and personal season-high of 36 points. Even better, he did it on 21 shots while playing some solid defence and coming up with six rebounds. Andrea the All-Star? Yes, Andrea the All-Star.

2- As if Ed Davis’ season hasn’t been frustrating enough, the young big man had to feel like he hit rock bottom tonight. Three minutes of playing time, zero points on 0-for-1 shooting, one rebound, one turnover, three personal fouls.  Ouch, that’s really all there is to say. This has to be the bottom of the barrel for Davis…right?!

3- I mentioned that the Raptors had to claw back after another sluggish start to a game and another early double-digit deficit. For a young team that should be able to pounce on older teams early, these first quarter woes are really becoming a major concern for Toronto. In their last six first quarters, the Raptors have been outscored by a combined 159-88 (an average of about 26.5-14.7), have trailed by anywhere from eight-to-16 points after the last six opening frames and haven’t scored more than 18 points in a first quarter in any of those games. With that aforementioned youth, I assumed the Raptors would lose a lot of games this season after opening up surprising leads early on. Instead, they’re almost facing an uphill battle by the game’s first stoppage.

4- As bad as the first quarter was for the Raptors in this game, the third quarter was that much better. Carried by a barrage of Bargnani buckets, Toronto outscored Phoenix 31-19 (Bargnani himself, with 18 points in the third, almost matched the Suns’ entire output for the quarter), and went from being down four at halftime to up eight heading into the fourth quarter. It was definitely one of the best, most complete quarters of the season for the Raptors, if not the best so far this year, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint.

5- Here’s my quick take on the Suns. Outside of Steve Nash, and maybe Marcin Gortat, I don’t think you can name one player on that roster who is an NBA starter at this point in their career. Even beyond looking for starters, can you even find more than three or four guys on that roster who can legitimately impact a game on any given night? The Suns need to blow it up and start all over again, and that process will be made easier when about $30 million comes off their books this off-season. But they can speed up the rebuilding process by trading Steve Nash before the trade deadline (and freeing him from this mess of a situation) and stock-piling some good young talent, which they have none of right now. Trading Nash mid-season would also likely put them in better position for the stacked 2012 Draft.

They owe it to Nash, and they owe it to themselves.

6- I could spend my last thought knocking another lackluster performance from DeMar DeRozan, but I’ve said enough about his recent play already. Instead, I’ll take the high road and talk about a positive right now, and that’s James Johnson. Johnson finished with 18 points (on seven-of-12 shooting) to go along with 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. In addition, he played more minutes than anyone besides Bargnani and turned the ball over just twice in those 35 minutes. In his last three games, Johnson is averaging 16 points on 54 per cent shooting to go along with six rebounds and about two blocks and two steals.

He doesn’t have to score that prolifically, but as I’ve mentioned recently, if Johnson can even become an average offensive option when the Raptors need him, then coupled with his versatile defence, I’d say at 24, he definitely has a place in the Raptors’ future in some capacity.

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Next up for the Raptors is the back end of a back-to-back in Utah on Wednesday night. The Jazz are an underrated team in the Western Conference and are sitting at home well rested, so the Raps could and should get knocked back down to earth after this win.

Never the less, even in a mostly lost season more about draft positioning than anything else, you still don’t want to see double-digit losing streaks, so this was a much-needed victory for the young Raptors.

Raptors Player of the Game: Andrea Bargnani – 42 Min, 36 Pts, 10-21 FG, 4-6 3PT, 12-12 FT, 6 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 Stl, 1 Blk, 2 TO

Suns Player of the Game: Marcin Gortat – 38 Min, 21 Pts, 9-16 FG, 3-5 FT, 12 Reb, 1 Ast, 2 Blk