Time was – circa the prime of Steve Nash some 12 years ago – that the Phoenix Suns constituted a top-notch opponent on the NBA schedule, an all-hands-on-deck foe against whom only a pristine effort would give you any chance at success.
These days, a game against the Western Conference bottom feeders is about as close to a gimme putt as it gets.
Perhaps it was that prospect of a perceived soft touch that the Toronto Raptors, ahead of Thursday night’s visit to Scotiabank Arena by the Suns, let it be known that both Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, the two straws that stir their drink, would not be available.
They were to be joining OG Anunoby (personal matter) and the ever-convalescing Jonas Valanciunas (left thumb dislocation) in sideline civvies.
That left a pretty thin gruel of able-bodied personnel, even against the setting Suns.
As it turned out, Toronto coach Nick Nurse had a last-minute change of heart and Lowry wound up taking up his normal spot at point guard for the game.
The Raptors dearly needed his involvement as they overcame a largely inept performance to eke out a 111-109 win.
Pascal Siakam scored the winning basket, driving in and making a difficult running layup in traffic to just beat the buzzer and send the capacity gathering cheering in ecstasy.
Lowry, who surpassed 5,000 career assists in the game, made a key strip of the ball off T.J. Warren underneath the Suns' basket moments earlier to help secure the win.
Serge Ibaka led the Rapators in scoring with 22 points.
For the effervescent Siakam, it was his first close-out winning shot of his NBA career and he was beaming with delight afterwards in the locker room.
Asked what advice he was given during the timeout before the Raptors ran their winning play, Siakam answered with a broad grin: “It was ‘Pascal, get the ball and get some spice a little bit.’"
Siakam’s nickname is Spicy.
This was definitely a game in which the Raptors played down to the level of their opponents, a herky-jerky affair with little rhythm that saw the Suns claim a surprising 78-77 lead heading into the final quarter.
The contest got a little testy in the fourth after Chris Boucher went in for a jam that provided Toronto with a 90-87 lead.
In the process, Boucher was fouled by Josh Johnson, who earned a technical after complaining that the call was unwarranted. It was his second – cause for an automatic ejection.
The prospect of some down time for his key players was given serious consideration by Nurse, whose team was put through the ringer the night before in Boston by a Celtics team that pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 117-108 win.
The setback curtailed a five-game winning streak for the Raptors, who next play the Memphis Grizzlies at home on Saturday.
Leonard never plays in both games of a back to back, part of what the team likes to refer to as his “load management.”
The initial decision to sit Lowry, who has missed time this year nursing a wonky back and then a left thigh contusion, was a bit of a surprise. He did log almost 34 minutes of tough slogging in Boston, where the will was there but the shooting touch was not.
His shooting eye has not been sharp since he returned to the lineup after missing 10 of 11 games nursing his various ailments, dipping to 34 per cent in five games heading into the Phoenix contest.
It was felt a bit of a rest would do him good, but Lowry was having none of it. Ever the eager beaver, he arm-twisted his way back into the starting lineup.
“Kyle’s a supercompetitive dude, man,” Nurse said before the game. "He’s pissed off we lost that game [against the Celtics] and he wants to get out there and get this thing turned back around.”
Lowry nailed his first three-point attempt in the first quarter Thursday night, and that was a good sign, propelling Toronto into an early 13-11 lead.
He was later joined by Danny Green and Fred VanVleet from long distance as the Raptors connected on 65 per cent of their field goals (13-20) to open a 32-20 first-quarter lead.
They would stretch their advantage to as much as 16 after five minutes of play in the second quarter.
But the Suns stepped it up with a strong finish and, aided by three made foul shots with less than a second left in the quarter by Kelly Oubre Jr., trimmed Toronto’s lead to 57-49 by the half.
The Raptors sleep walked through much of the third quarter, and the Suns capitalized. A three-ball by Mikal Bridges with just under six minutes left knotted the game at 67-67, and a wave of unease started to infiltrate the hometown fans.
It only got worse.
A 15-footer by Oubre Jr. provided the Suns with a 78-75 lead, and they would settle for a 78-77 margin heading into the final frame.
The Raptors must have felt like they were shooting at a soup can as they made just seven of their 22 shots in the frame.