PHOENIX - Going into Friday's game the Raptors had one noticeable advantage over the surprisingly competitive Suns - their size.
The Raptors owned the NBA's seventh-best rebounding rate and ranked fourth on the offensive glass while the Suns, a team that starts two point guards and plays mostly outside of the paint, have struggled on the boards despite their hot start to the season.
For Toronto, the game plan was simple.
"Try to make them pay for playing small," Dwane Casey emphasized after morning shoot around.
It turned out to be easier said than done.
"That's an area that was a strength of ours, rebounding, but now it's one of our weaknesses," Casey said after his team was out-rebounded 53-36, including an 18-11 disparity on the offensive boards, in a 106-97 loss, the Raptors' fifth straight.
Casey's club misjudged this Suns team like others have done early in the season. As Toronto found out, their stature can be misleading. Their toughness set the tone and the Raptors, for all of the mismatches they planned to exploit, were in over their heads once again.
"It's about toughness, it's about attention to detail, it's about being locked in and knowing your guy is coming in behind you," Casey exclaimed. "When you give them 18 more bullets, you can't win in this league."
The Raptors played frustrated, which didn't necessarily translate to that desperate style of play that Casey's been looking for. Markieff Morris jawed at Jonas Valanciunas, baiting him into a double technical, Kyle Lowry pouted and complained until he was whistled for a tech of his own and former Raptors castoff PJ Tucker got under the skin of DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay all night. The Suns did a lot of talking, but they backed it all up.
Morris missed just three of his 14 attempts recording a double-double of 25 points and 11 rebounds and Tucker scored 18 to go along with a career-best 13 boards.
"This team is a very physical team," Casey said of the Suns. "Their wing players are very physical. They are tough match-ups and you have to meet that physicality with physicality and we didn't do it on the boards."
With a roster designed to be bad while incoming visionary Ryan McDonough collects picks and cap space, rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek has the Suns playing hard despite being outmatched in the talent department most every night - not unlike the team that overachieved in Casey's first year with the Raptors.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, nothing is going right for the Raptors. The team still sits dead last in the league in assists (they recorded just 15 on Friday) and their primary shot-takers can't seem to knock down shots.
Gay and DeRozan combined to shoot 11-for-30 on a night in which both were oddly ineffective and often unnoticeable. Efficiency be damned on some nights, but generally one or the other - recently its been DeRozan more often than not - manages to put points on the board. It was not the case on Friday.
Most concerning for Gay continues to be his missed shots around the rim, an ongoing trend this season. Gay was just two-for-seven in the painted area against the Suns and his percentages around the bucket have dropped significantly compared to his career norm.
"It's tough because he's getting hit, but he has to hit first," Casey said of Gay's struggles in the paint. "He's not getting the benefit of the calls, but some of them are not fouls. He has to go in there and hit first and think about dunking the ball rather than finessing."
Johnson fills in for injured Hansbrough
The Raptors certainly missed the toughness of Tyler Hansbrough, who exited the game just two and a half minutes in after taking an inadvertent elbow from Channing Frye and spraining his left shoulder. He did not return and is considered day-to-day.
In his place, Amir Johnson, who lost his starting gig to Hansbrough last week, stepped up and chipped in a season-best 22 points in 33 minutes off the bench. It was the second-straight game in which Johnson resembled his old self, a positive sign for this team moving forward, especially if Hansbrough is forced to miss time.
Looking ahead, or not looking ahead
Prior to the game, Casey insisted he and his team would not be distracted by a boisterous announcement made by Kobe Bryant and the Lakers earlier in the day. Bryant, who has been recovering from his Achilles injury, will make his season debut in Los Angeles against the Raptors on Sunday.
"I heard that," Casey admitted. "But I know I'm not [looking ahead] and I haven't heard our guys mention anything about it as far as looking ahead to Sunday."
"We have no right to look ahead," he exclaimed before the loss. "We've got to be the hungry team, we've got to be the desperate team tonight."