It wasn’t a stylish victory by any means, but the Raptors finally won a close game down the stretch with solid defence, and that’s a start in a game they absolutely HAD to get.

Here are some thoughts on the game:

Raptors 101, Suns 97

- I mentioned the solid defence down the stretch. The Raptors’ D overall wasn’t great tonight (the Suns shot 48%) and was especially weak to start the game, but sometimes it’s more about when your defence steps up and getting timely stops. The Raps got those timely stops in the fourth quarter tonight, specifically in the final couple of minutes, and that was the difference.

- It’s only one game and no one is going to confuse the Mickael Pietrus signing as a massive game changer, but I liked what I saw tonight. Pietrus seems to have a savvy veteran presence about him, and whether it was calmly executing inbounds plays under Suns pressure or just being in the right spot on defence or for a timely rebound, he brought something to this game that the Raptors are usually lacking. I also liked the fact that the Suns were respecting his corner three-point threat, which spaced out the offence nicely in the second half.

I don’t know if Pietrus will be starting or not, but I think it’s safe to assume he’ll be on the floor to finish a lot of close games.

- DeMar DeRozan was the Raptors’ best player on Friday, and you can easily make the argument that he was the best player on the floor period. His shot wasn’t falling early, but instead of trying to force things offensively or throwing up bad shots, he attacked the basket all night, made nine trips to the free throw line, chipped in on the boards with eight rebounds, made some nice reads with the ball in his hands to grab four assists and even contributed some solid defence when the Raptors needed it. The evolution of DeMar continues.

- There were some glimpses of the early season Kyle Lowry in this game, but he also committed a couple of potentially back-breaking turnovers down the stretch and still didn’t have his usual burst. It’s hard to hate on him when he’s grabbing huge rebounds on the other end in a crowd of big men, though.

I thought Jose Calderon was great in relief of Lowry, posting 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he was 3/3 from deep) while dishing out nine assists in just 24 minutes. Calderon and the Raptors bench changed the game in Toronto’s favour in the second quarter and early in the fourth quarter.

- Speaking of the bench, Toronto’s reserves outscored Phoenix’s second unit 46-36, with Amir Johnson leading the way with 16 points and six rebounds and forming one half of a formidable bench-bigs combination with Ed Davis. It was nice to see a clean 10-man rotation that pretty much featured two players per position and never featured any random experimental lineups or two-point guard lineups. If Landry Fields can bounce back from injury and get back to being a competent NBA wing player, I’ll be fine with the 10-man rotation we saw tonight, except with Fields taking Linas Kleiza’s spot.

- Speaking of Kleiza, there are stretches of each game he plays in where he seems to figure out that he can be a pretty effective offensive player operating out of the post, and then he quickly forgets about it and goes back to being “Long-two Linas.”

- Andrea Bargnani was actually good defensively tonight, especially on that last defensive stand, and though he was virtually invisible on the offensive end, he grabbed one of the most important rebounds of the game and then calmly converted the subsequent free throws to seal the deal. I still don’t think he’s a fit with this team or the team’s desired direction, but I’ll admit that I might not trust anybody at the line in that situation more than Bargnani. If there’s one thing you can say for Andrea, it’s that the same care free attitude that seems to limit his overall game also gives him ice water veins in high pressure situations.

- One observation that’s really encouraged me recently is how NBA-ready Terrence Ross‘ defence has looked. He actually did a decent job guarding James Harden in Tuesday’s blowout loss in the few instances he was assigned to guarding him one-on-one, and he showed some more of that defensive awareness tonight against the Suns. What I’ve noticed is that Ross seems to have a really good grasp on how and when to leave his man to help a teammate double-team another player, and that he always makes sure he can make it back to his own man in time. That’s a defensive principle thing that you either have or don’t have as a basketball player, and Ross has it.

His ball handling and ability to create for himself in small samples has also been surprising lately considering those are two of his weakest areas, and I continue to believe that most fans are underrating how high the 21-year-old’s ceiling is as a complete player.

Raptors Player of the Game: DeMar DeRozan – 23 Pts, 8/18 FG, 7/9 FT, 8 Reb, 4 Ast, 1 Stl, 2 TO in 35:05

Suns Player of the Game: Marcin Gortat – 14 Pts, 6/10 FG, 2/2 FT, 6 Reb, 5 Ast, 3 Blk, 2 TO in 30:32

While a victory of any kind feels nice when your team has lost six straight and only had three wins from their first 16 games, it’s important to remember that this win won’t mean much if the Raptors can’t actually build off of it, and they’ll have their work cut out for them on a five-game Western Conference road trip through Denver, Utah, Sacramento, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Portland.

I don’t think it’s likely (heck, I don’t even know if they can grab one of those games), but I maintain that if the Raptors can steal two of those five games to come back home 6-16, they’ll be in a manageable situation in terms of being able to start digging themselves out of this massive hole. It certainly isn’t an ideal situation or the mark of a playoff caliber team, but I really do see a difference between 6-16 and anything worse than that.