While I greatly appreciate all who read this blog regularly, let’s face it: basketball is typically a lot more satisfying to watch than read about. Sometimes, though, as was the case in the Toronto Raptors’ (31-15) 103-93 win over the New York Knicks on Thursday night, it isn’t. Once in a while, compelling storylines and enjoyable narratives can help gloss over a sloppy, ugly tilt, particularly one that is being featured nationally on TNT.
Thursday’s game certainly wasn’t pretty, but there was enough Raptor-related excitement surrounding the night to make up for it. About 30 minutes prior to tip-off, a live in-arena TNT feed showed DeMar DeRozan’s official appointment as an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve, eliciting a cheer from the sparse crowd on hand at the time and creating an early buzz inside the ACC. The late game energy stemmed from Toronto zeroing in on their franchise record-setting 10th straight victory. Those book-ending highlights spurred on a building-wide energy that made for a memorable night despite an underwhelming performance by the home side and injuries to Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Jose Calderon, arguably New York’s top three biggest draws for Raptor fans.
Carrying a 10-point lead into the second half, the Raps sluggishly stumbled into the third quarter, allowing the Knicks to make a 14-5 run and pull within one. However, Toronto responded with a 15-3 run of their own to build a lead that would never again draw any closer than seven points. All-Stars DeRozan and Kyle Lowry played like it against New York, scoring 26 points apiece against a club that didn’t have anyone score more than Arron Afflalo’s 20.
It’s fitting – and a little eerie – to see the similarity in the stat lines of Lowry and DeRozan now that it’s official that both will be sticking around town for the NBA’s mid-season extravaganza over Valentine’s Day weekend. Both men got their 26 on 50% shooting (8-16 for Lowry, 9-18 for DeRozan), both made seven of their eight free throws and both turned the ball over three times. The All-Star starter earned an edge with 10 assists, six rebounds and by making three of five three-pointers, but it was both appropriate and unsurprising to see the Raptors’ dynamic back court stand out above the crowd.
Doing the little things
It was ever so slight, but for the first time during their win streak, the Raptors finished with a lower field goal percentage than their opponent (43.7% to 43.5%). Despite their shots not falling, Toronto found other ways to put points on the board. The out-rebounded the Knicks 50-40, they went 8-20 from three-point range (40%) compared to 7-18 (38.9%) from New York, they blocked 11 shots compared to eight by the visitors and, most significantly, made 21-29 free throws (72.4%) compared to just 10-20 (50%) free throw shooting by their opponents.
Playing down to your opponent
It’s a common, frustrating refrain for the Raptors to point out that they still have trouble demonstrating the killer instinct needed to close games out early and cruise to comfortable wins over lesser opponents. The Knicks were playing without two of their top three leading scorers while sporting a four-game losing streak, but the Raps’ 10-point margin of victory was still their narrowest in their past four games. Four of their next six opponents boast sub-.500 records, a fact that should present an opportunity but sounds more like a word of warning right now.
Since my last recap, there have been some emerging details regarding upcoming All-Star festivities. Coaches for the game will be Gregg Popovich, who will step in on account of the ‘Riley Rule’ that holds that coaches cannot represent their conference for two straight ASG’s, and Tyronn Lue, who will coach his first All-Star Game just over three weeks after coaching his first NBA game. The Rising Stars Challenge, which will pit the US vs the world again with the world owning home court advantage for the first time, had its roster announced and includes local products Andrew Wiggins and Dwight Powell alongside Porzingis and other young talent. Finally, Sting was announced as the halftime performer for Sunday’s game, a perplexing decision that has fans confused and annoyed.
It’s not quite 10 in a row, but the 905’s five-game win streak is slowly becoming a mark of pride for the expansion club. Their latest triumph – a 106-96 home victory over the Erie Bayhawks – was boosted by Axel Toupane, who followed up a 34-point effort in his last game against Erie with a 30-point showing on Wednesday night.
With Melo and Porzingis out, the Knicks had no choice but to showcase the second tier talents brought in as inexpensive secondary supporting players. Interestingly, this group of players, one that includes Afflalo, Robin Lopez, Derrick Williams and Sasha Vujacic, could loom large for the Knicks regardless of what path they choose to forge over the rest of the season. They could make a push for the No. 8 seed – and why wouldn’t they without their own first round pick this summer – and use the four aforementioned vets as key role players. Or they could turn some combination of the four, particularly Afflalo and Lopez, into valuable trade chips in order to advance the rebuild around Porzingis.
Can the Raps make it a clean 7-0 to cap off their home stand? We’ll find out on Saturday night against All-Star reserve Andre Drummond and the Pistons (6:30pm, SN1).
Prediction: Raps 99, Pistons 93 (record this season: 27-18)