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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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Meet Abdel Nader.

The other guy in the Chris Paul trade.

The Phoenix Suns didn’t send four players with two being starters Cheap Kelly Oubre Jr. Jersey and Ricky Rubio and a future first-round pick to Oklahoma City last month for just the All-Star veteran point guard.

They also got Nader, a second-round pick in the 2016 draft out of Iowa State who brings shooting, hustle, a team mindset and isn’t concerned about how he’s being viewed in the Paul trade.

“At this point in my career, it’s kind of just I’m competing to be the best basketball player I can be and that’s really how I approach it every day,” said Nader, who started his NBA career with the Boston Celtics in 2017-18. “Not really worried about what other people are saying.”

Oklahoma City’s Abdel Nader (11) reacts after scoring a 3-point shot during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck).
Born in Egypt, Nader is averaging just 4.5 points in his three NBA seasons, but averaged a career-best 6.3 points last season with the Thunder and made an impression on Paul in their first season together in Oklahoma City.

“He’s just a consummate team player,” Paul said. “He’s going to do whatever Coach asks him to do. If that’s defending the best player, he’s going to run hard. He’s going to compete. He can really shoot it. Just the consummate team guy.”

MORE:Phoenix Suns: Monty Williams declines to comment on Cheap Jae Crowder Jersey status

The Phoenix Suns started to practice on Saturday, so three days in, what does All-NBA point guard Cheap Chris Paul Jersey think of his new squad?

“I’m getting a chance to see first hand why they were so good in the bubble and the jump that they made from the season to the bubble,” he said Monday. “I think that’s what’s been really cool to see — to see Cam Johnson, to know Cheap Jevon Carter Jersey before I got here. Just to see how many hungry guys we got. I talk about E’Twaun Moore and Cheap Langston Galloway Jersey a lot because I played against them for years — to see, like I know they can hoop, but to see what type of guys they are in the locker room already is gonna be big for our team.”

Head coach Monty Williams is going to find the balance of maintaining that successful style from Orlando and implementing Paul’s all-world talents into his gameplans.

“He saw the way we played and that may have been appealing to him,” he said. “We like to think we’re a team that plays a certain way and that may be appealing to some guys. At the same time, I want to tweak a few things to fit his skill set.”

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It seems like an extension of the bond formed in the bubble has carried over as a foundation that has the team clicking. When Paul was asked what has impressed him the most thus far, it was that.

“The camaraderie that we sort of built already,” he said. “Through team group texts … our team seems like we’ve been together for a while just because we got guys that want to compete, want to work hard but you can tell everyone enjoys being in the gym.”

The relationship Paul forms with Cheap Devin Booker Jersey on the court and off will dictate the team’s success, and Paul isn’t going to overcomplicate things there. When asked if there’s anything now on a day-to-day basis he’s eager to work with Booker on or wants to see Booker improve on, he kept it simple.

“Nothin’,” he said with a laugh. “I ain’t looking for nothing … I think his presence, his demeanor — one thing about Book is that he commands respect from everybody from just how he plays the game and how he carries itself. All the other stuff will take care of itself because he puts the work in.”

Easy enough!

CROWDER’S STATUS UNKNOWN
Williams was asked about new forward Jae Crowder’s status being a player that just got done with a long playoff run in the bubble and said the following:

“I can’t comment on Jae’s situation right now. I’m just gonna leave it at that.”

Williams said Saturday he would not comment on whether players did or did not practice in fear of violating the league’s collective bargaining agreement, a more relevant issue with potential COVID-19 cases now a reality.

Williams held the same stance in the bubble, and the public did not learn that Cheap Ricky Rubio Jersey and Cheap Aron Baynes Jersey tested positive for coronavirus until they themselves told the media. With practice in the Orlando bubble that season and the Zoom era of media availabilities continuing for everyone’s safety, reporters are obviously not physically present to see if a player is in attendance, as they were previously before the world flipped upside down.

Starting six games last season, the 6-5 forward shot 37.5% from 3, which is also a career high.

“You got a guy who is kind of a young player despite being in the middle of his career,” said new Thunder coach Mark Daigneault about the 27-year-old Nader. “I still think there is a ceiling for him as a player He obviously can really score the ball, he’s an aggressive scorer, but he’s a really good guy. Really good teammate and has great humility. He’s always trying to improve and he’s willing to put the work in to improve.”

Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker, left, tries to shoot past Oklahoma City Thunder’s Cheap Abdel Nader Jersey, center, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP).
Nader said he didn’t really know what to think about the trade at first, but was happy Paul was part of it as Oklahoma City sent those two to Phoenix for Cheap Ty Jerome Jersey, Cheap Jalen Lecque Jersey, Oubre Jr., Rubio and a future first-round pick last month before the draft.

“I’ve been traded before so I’ve kind of been through this already once,” Nader said. “I was happy to hear that C was coming with me because me and him have built a relationship in the past so having him here with me has made that transition much smoother.”

Nader later said he’s was excited about the trade.

“I haven’t really spent time in Phoenix but I knew (the Suns) had a nice, young unit with a lot of talent,” Nader said. “Ability to grow. Also the city sounds like a nice place to me. I wasn’t complaining too much.”

Nader’s NBA career started in the G League as he earned G League Rookie of the Year playing for Boston’s Maine Red Claws. He then played one season for the Celtics before being traded to Oklahoma City for Rodney Purvis going into the 2018-19 season.

Boston Celtics forward Abdel Nader shoots in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola).
Nader spent the next two seasons with the Thunder. He posted three double-figure games in the bubble, scoring 15 in an 128-101 loss to the Suns.

Now he’s in Phoenix looking to find his role.

“I really don’t know (his role) on the team,” Nader said. “Just trying to play. I think we’re all trying to play. It’s a new group of guys. So I think we’re all trying to play and figure out how we can help each other and how we can fit together.”