Knicks 116, Raptors 99 – Box

Thought the outcome of this game would have been a lot different given that the Raptors had won the first ACC visit, while riding some momentum and overflowing with confidence after that impressive win against Oklahoma City. It was not to be however, as the Knicks gave the Raptors a taste of their own medicine, playing smart up-tempo basketball. They set the tone with a first quarter that rivalled the now infamous third quarter Toronto delivered on Friday night, and weathered some Raptor mini-runs to close out the game late in the fourth. This was making itself out to be a litmus test for Toronto. As the current 8th seed, how did they stack up against another bubble team outside of the big 5? Think we got the answer on Sunday afternoon.

After a decade of futility, it looks like the New York Knicks are back on the road to respectability. Amare Stoudemire has stepped up his game in the harsh glare of New York lights. It’s not just his improved defense, but he looks like the clear-cut leader on this team. A vocal one at that, something Raptor faithful wished one Chris Bosh would have become, who in reality had his sights set on being a third wheel in Miami. Sound like sour grapes? Not really. Maybe if Amir Johnson and Ed Davis weren’t around. More on those two later.

The 3-ball killed the Raptors all game, starting very early in the game. The main offenders were Wilson Chandler and Landry Fields. Sure, Amare was a big add, but these two showed why New York has taken such a big step forward. Not only do they shoot the ball well, they can rebound and they can defend. Good multi-dimensional players that contribute more to winning games than any one-dimensional scorer ever would. Chandler was assigned to Bargnani and he was effective in containing Andrea. Various teams have used smaller guys on Bargnani, and it’s a strategy that worked more effectively than in the past. The main reason is that Andrea wasn’t able to exploit the mismatch by posting up Chandler. He did try a couple of times with some success, but didn’t seem like he wanted to put the work in to force the Knicks to adjust.

This team effectively plays small ball most of the time. It’s now an athletic up-tempo team and the coaching staff has to realize that Andrea Bargnani will now and then struggle against these types of teams. When he doesn’t have a plodding center he can pull out to the perimeter and have his way with him. It’s ok to reduce his minutes when he’s not being effective isn’t it? It speaks to the perception that this team struggles without him offensively, and that he’s the only guy who can “create” his own offense. That’s probably true, but he hasn’t shown that he can do that consistently either. Even if he was, doesn’t it raise the same complaint as last year? Where Chris Bosh was the offense, a much better offense mind you, and it wasn’t fluid and Bosh was a “ball-stopper”. What do you think Andrea is? No-one should ever complain about his touches, because he’s in the top 10 in attempts in the entire league. Let’s see more synergy like we saw with Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson. It’s highly efficient offense that creates chaos in opposing defenses.

How about Amir. Some of us have been clamouring for him to get minutes, and now that he’s getting them, watch out. Yeah, yeah, he’s a fouling machine but again, he doesn’t foul as much whenever he’s started and knows he’s going to play big minutes. What a productive game, where he played his usual defense and showed a real nose for the rim. He has got some of the best hands for a big man I’ve ever seen. Great touch around the rim. Did not look out of place matched up against one of the best power forwards in the game. I hope Jay Triano was (essentially) holding Ed Davis out of the second half to manage his minutes, because any other reason would not cut it. He played well again, showing that he will be able to rebound effectively in this league. His shot looks awful but we already knew that.

After being pounded in the first quarter, the Raptors played a much better second frame with another great effort by Jerryd Bayless. Have to admit, I am pleasantly surprised. Bayless is not stupid, far from that. He`s playing with more of a point guard mindset, because he knows that’s what willl drive his value up. But the dude can score. His shooting will come down to earth, right now he`s unconscious from 3-point land, but his ability to stay in front of his man is impressive. Already a much better defender that Jose or Jack. He has developed some chemistry with Amir as well, and you have to think that Amir makes himself available for high quality looks which makes it easier for anyone running the point. Nonetheless, he outplayed Jose easily. Apparently Jose was sick before the game, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Knicks cooled down offensively without Stoudemire to draw in defenders in the second quarter, but after a hot start led by Bayless, the Raptors were not able to take advantage. Bargnani kept missing jumpers, DeRozan was at least trying to get to the rim, but the refs are seemingly swallowing their whistles for this kid nowadays. There’s definitely contact, but I guess Timofy Mozgov has done more to earn respect with these guys. Can’t have anything to do with the name on the front of his jersey, naaah.

The 3rd quarter started off similar to the first for the Knicks. Felton penetrating, drawing defenders to kick out to Chandler and Fields for corner threes, and Stoudemire operating from the post. Only when Bayless came in did the Raps start playing better, including some highlight-reel dunks by Amir Johnson. Felton was far less effective against Bayless, and the lead was down to seven by the end of the quarter.

One of the pivotal plays occurred in the beginning of the fourth. An airborne Sonny Weems received a pass right near the rim, and instead of bringing the ball down and then going back up for a pretty easy layup, he decided to try a reverse layup before hitting the ground. Instead of becoming a 5 point game, New York scored on the next possession and never looked back. It’s the kind of play that you would never see on a team with a tough coach that demanded accountability. Can you imagine someone doing that on the Spurs with Gregg Popovich breathing down everyones neck?

This is where Stoudemire really took over this game. Triano went with a lineup of Calderon, Bayless, Barbosa, Kleiza and Bargnani. Unacceptable. Because Bargnani loves to switch off onto perimeter players, we constantly saw Stoudemire abuse any of the remaining four Raptors. Usually it was Calderon. It’s comical, really. This the NBA. You cant put on a doomed lineup, even if it is 2.5 minutes because New York grew their lead from 7 to 12 in that span. Especially in the fourth. Bayless and Johnson were mercifully subbed in and brought the deficit back down to single digits with 6 minutes to go. But Amare went to work again, exploiting mismatches to extend the lead and then Bargnani literally watched his man Shawne Williams hit consecutive threes from the exact same spot early in the shot clock to ice the game.

Jay Triano got out-coached in the fourth, no question, but he does have less to work with. The most talented player on the floor was utilized to the best of his capabilities and excelled at the end like every marquee player should. It was a setback for the upstart Raptor squad, but there were some positives to be taken out of this game, like the play of Bayless and Johnson. If the rest of the team had played even an average game, the result would have been different. Consistency is the key word here, and unfortunately experience is one of the elements needed to attain it. Pizza or no pizza.