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Tougher. Grittier. Nastier.

Kyle Lowry says Toronto needs to improve in those areas that have made the Raptors one of the NBA’s top teams in recent years – and it doesn’t stop there.

“We have no swag to us right now,” the All-Star guard said. “There’s nothing to us. Teams are looking at us like, alright, let’s go eat, and that’s not a good feeling and I think we have to use that and fuel our own fire.”

Seeing this as “unchartered territory,” the Raptors (1-5) can see things going from bad to worse as they start a four-game road trip Wednesday at Phoenix (5-2), at 7 p.m.

“Phoenix, they don’t give a damn what our record is,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “They’re going to try to punch us in the mouth. They’re going to try to kick our butts. Nobody is coming to save us. We’ve got to do this ourselves.”

The Raptors are coming off a126-114 loss Monday to Boston. They’ve blown double-digit leads in their five defeats.

Having made the playoffs the last seven seasons and won an NBA title in 2019, Toronto isn’t used to struggles like this.

“Probably do a little soul searching and look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what each individual can do better to help contribute to the team,” VanVleet continued. “Go out there and figure out ways to win.”

Jan 3, 2021; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Suns’ Cheap Mikal Bridges Jersey (25) contests a jumper from Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (2) during the first half at the Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Breen-Arizona Republic
While the Raptors could be a dangerous opponent looking to get back to their winning ways, Phoenix is focused on itself.

“Our challenge is us,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We just lost a game also that we felt like we could’ve won. We’re no different than Toronto. They’re desperate. We’ve played with an urgency and desperation every night. Our challenge is to play to our standard and not base what we do on what another team is feeling.”

Phoenix is coming off an 112-107 loss Sunday to the Los Angeles Clippers that snapped its four-game winning streak. The Suns were down by as many as 31 points in the first half before shrinking the lead to a point early in the fourth quarter in the eventual loss.

“We didn’t necessarily get stops when we needed to and execute the way that we’re capable of, but we gave ourselves a chance,” Suns guard Cheap Chris Paul Jersey said.

As bothersome as that loss was, Phoenix doesn’t have a “boatload” of problems like VanVleet says Toronto has.

One of them is on-ball defense.

“It used to be one of our strengths when we really guarded penetration well and we’re not guarding it very well right now.” said Nick Nurse, the 2019-20 NBA Coach of the Year, whose Raptors were 13th in defensive rating and points allowed per game going into Tuesday’s action.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives around Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara).
Another problem is rebounding.

Ranked 27th in defensive rebounding, Toronto was outrebounded, 56-37, Monday. VanVleet led the Raptors in boards with seven despite being several inches shorter than Boston’s starting center Cheap Aron Baynes Jersey and reserve big Cheap Alex Len Jersey.

Not only did the two former Suns not score, Baynes had only one rebound in 14 minutes while Len collected just two in nine. Boston grabbed 12 offensive rebounds as Toronto is allowing 11 offensive boards a game.

“We’ve got to play better man,” said Nurse about the team as a whole. “We got to get these guys to play to their capabilities. I think they’re better players than that.”

After averaging career highs in points (11.5 per game) and 3-shooting (35.1%) last season as a backup center in Phoenix, Baynes is averaging just 6.2 points and shooting just 20% from 3 through six games this season.

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“Aron is a guy that can do a lot of things on the floor,” said Williams about Baynes, who is averaging a career-high 5.8 rebounds this season. “He can pass, he can shoot it. Defensively, he draws charges. He was one of the best in the league last year, especially at his position, doing that. We learned a lot being around Aron.”

Toronto is facing unique circumstances as it’s relocated to Tampa for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions in Canada. VanVleet is concerned about the mental health of the team, but said the Raptors have to get through it.

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