|After 'mud' game, Raptors visit cold Suns|
PHOENIX -- One of the hottest teams in the NBA will meet one of the coldest when the Toronto Raptors visit the Phoenix Suns on Thursday at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The Raptors (17-8) have won six of seven, their six-game winning streak broken in a road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday.
The Suns (9-20) have lost four in a row, six of seven and 16 of 21, the last two after failing to hold leads in the fourth quarter. They will again be without top scorer Devin Booker when they meet the Raptors for the second time in nine days.
Toronto had won 10 of 12 before its 96-91 loss to the Clippers, the third game of a four-game trip. The Raptors are thriving even though they have played 15 of their 25 games on the road.
Despite possessing a more up-tempo offense this season, the Raptors scored a season-low against the Clippers. A rare offensive spark that game came from center Jonas Valanciunas, who tied season highs with 23 points and 15 rebounds. With Valanciunas scoring two baskets, Toronto led by seven early in the fourth quarter before taking its first loss since Nov. 24.
"We were playing in mud," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Psychologically we were a step behind. After we lost that lead, we couldn't get our traction back.
"All the way around, coaches and players, we just weren't sharp, and we didn't do anything to deserve a win."
Even with the new style, the Raptors continue to rely on the 1-2 punch of guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan is 16th in the league with a 23.2-point scoring average, and he had scored at least 20 in five consecutive games before getting 17 at the Clippers. He is averaging 5.2 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Lowry is averaging 16.4 points, 7.0 assists and 6.4 rebounds, joining Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Ben Simmons as the only players to average 16/7/6. He has made 75 3-pointers and is on a pace for a career-high 246 -- although he was 0-for-8 from long distance at Los Angeles.
Lowry tallied 20 points, 10 assists and six rebounds in the Raptors' 126-113 victory over the Suns on Dec. 5, when Booker strained a left adductor while playing defense in the fourth quarter. Booker is expected to miss two to three weeks.
The Suns will finish their eighth set of back-to-back games against Toronto after falling 99-92 at Sacramento on Tuesday, when they were outscored 19-4 after taking an 85-80 lead with six minutes remaining.
Without Booker, the Suns have called on small forward TJ Warren take up an even larger portion of their scoring load. Warren is averaging 21.7 points in the past three games, up from his season average of 18.8 points, a career-high pace.
Warren scored 18 points at Sacramento, but it took him 24 shots to get there. Reserve guard Mike James recorded 17 points and five assists in 20 minutes off the bench. Without Booker, the Suns attempted 32 3-point field goals and made just seven (21.9 percent). James was 1-for-3 from beyond the arc.
"Devin attracts so much attention for us, and now they know TJ is that guy," Suns interim coach Jay Triano said. "We ask him to do a lot of things for us. You'd like to be able to spread the floor and make those (3-point) shots. We couldn't make shots in the second half. We have to get better at shooting the 3-ball. The game is trending that way, and we have to be able to make more than 2 of 17 in a half."
Phoenix played one of its best games Saturday, when it overcame a 19-point deficit in the third quarter and led the San Antonio Spurs in the final half-minute before falling 104-101 at home. James (25 points) and reserves Greg Monroe (eight points, 11 rebounds) and Troy Daniels (10 points) played key roles.
"Took us 24 minutes to find a group that would play with the right energy," Triano said. "I was mixing guys in and out, trying to look for offense, defense, anything that would give us some juice. Finally got it in the second half."
Phoenix played two sets of back-to-back games on its most recent six-game trip, including the loss at Toronto in which Booker was hurt. The Suns are 0-3 in his absence.
Small forward Josh Jackson is averaging 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in the three games he has started for Booker, who is 11th in the NBA with a 24.3-point scoring average. Jackson scored seven points and shot 3 of 14 from the field against the Kings.