There are nights that can serve as a “coming of age” story for a team.  They’re usually unexpected road victories in situations of adversity where a level of grit, not known to exist, is not only displayed but showcased.  The Raptors already had one of these nights less than a week ago in Indiana, and last night in New York they did one better by beating the second seed in the East and elevating the physical play and defense to not only match but surpass New York’s.

Casey flanked Valanciunas with Landry Fields and Rudy Gay as starters to counter New York’s smallish lineup which technically has three point-guards in it (Kidd, Felton, Shumpert), Anthony at the four and Chandler in the middle.  The intention was to negate New York’s quickness advantage, thus bypassing the Raptors’ own potential advantage from having Johnson in there.   With both teams having capable perimeter defenders on the wings (Lowry, Gay, Fields, Shumpert, Felton, Kidd), jump-shots were settled for and missed by both teams early and throughout.

Related: Reaction – Raptors 92, Knicks 88

Everyone got their turn at defending Carmlelo Anthony as the Raptors were very aware of him turning the corner, and switched 2/3/4 or sent help from the inside.  Anthony’s response was not great as his first priority seemed to be to score rather than set up his teammates.   DeRozan and Fields played the right angles on Anthony and those soul-crushing scores that he’s known to get by going to his right were rarely to be witnessed.  Gay and Anthony are both athletically gifted but often lethargic defenders, and it was somewhat surprising to see them work hard at guarding each other.  Helped by the unkind New York rims, they went 4-21 and 5-24, respectively.  Volume shooting at its finest, and you have to give them credit for not stopping.

Related: Quotes – Johnson, Anderson, and Gay on Guarding ‘Melo

The Raptors offense was laboring and Kyle Lowry, basically going one-on-one in late-clock situations, scored seven in the first to keep the Raptors in it down 18-14.  The benches for both teams cleared out in the second quarter of this low-scoring but tight game, and John Lucas had a déjà vu from the Denver game, where the Raptors endured a miserable stretch in the second under his watch.  The culmination of this was a 15-2 New York run which gave them an 11-point lead; the featured attraction of the run was Raymond Felton going past Lucas much in the same manner Lawson did two nights previous.

While everyone was contemplating why the offense had gone to the gutter, intoning that this being the final game before the All Star game might have set a bit of malaise, Alan Anderson (26 pts, 10-16 FG, 3 ast) decided that this was his time to shine.  Actually, Anderson always decides that it’s his time to shine, but it’s only when his shot is dropping that he looks like the greatest bargain ever.  Two back-to-back threes right after that painful second quarter stretch bumped his total for the quarter to 10, and lo-and-behold, the Anthony/Gay matchup had been overshadowed by the Anderson/J.R Smith matchup and the D-Leaguer that could was winning it.  Raptors down five at the half, and considering just how terrible the overall offense was, this wasn’t a bad scoreline at all.

As is the norm now, Bargnani was tested in the second and showed as much passion as a guy on the last day of his job.   With Valanciunas being overpowered by Chandler, and Johnson occupied with Stoudemire, Casey called on Bargnani for some key production and got nothing in return.  Terrence Ross also saw some time in the second and picked up a foul, missed a jumper, missed another jumper, and picked up another foul.  Bad game, no impact, and the most disappointing aspect is that his defense, one-on-one, help, or just passing-lane awareness, is void.

The Raptors were -17 on the glass, and -12 on the offensive end.  As mentioned, the Raptors bigs were being tested and pushed around in the box, not to mention Bargnani getting zero rebounds in 12 minutes.  I don’t know whether it’s luck, good recovery defense, or something else, but somehow the Raptors were not made to pay the price for this differential.  To compensate for the rebounding, Landry Fields pitched in with 10 rebounds, mostly of the real kind (not ones that fall into his lap) and DeRozan had some key ones as well.   Of important note is that Amir Johnson had four blocks, one of them a key one against Anthony on the baseline in the fourth.

The trading of jump shots between Anthony and Gay continued in the third.  Credit goes to Casey and the Raptors for staying with the Knick wings on the perimeter, whether it be through a 2-something zone, great footwork in one-on-one situations, or negating Felton and Anthony’s paths to the rim.  On the other end, a 5-0 start courtesy of Fields and Lowry gave the side a big boost.  Looking up at the scoreboard and seeing New York’s 11-point lead gone, Anthony struggling, and the defense holding up had to have been a strong reminder that this game was there to be had.   Despite the closer struggling, you knew that if the Raptors kept it close they had a chance.  And that’s a belief that is becoming almost tangible.

The bench, which had almost ruined the night in the second, showed up big time again late in the third.  The Raptors went on an entirely unexpected 13-5 run to end the quarter, as Anderson hit three threes in the frame, and Lucas came on to hit one as well.  Unlike in the second, Lucas was able to keep Felton on the perimeter this time.  The Raptors shot 56% in the third, while the Knicks were at 19%.  You might say that it was due to some very poor shot-selection by the Knicks, but I’ve seen enough of them this year to say that those J.R Smith jumpers are the norm.

This was a physical game with constant complaining to the refs and in total, six technical were called – 3 on each team.  Unfortunately, Lowry picked up two of them in the third and even though he was walking away while complaining to the ref on the second one, the body language was just too demonstrative for it to be passed upon.  Harsh? Probably.  Self-inflicted?  Absolutely.  Raptors turn the table in the third to flip a five point deficit into a five point lead.  At this point you’re thinking that Rudy will come around and get this one for us.

I was shocked to see Bargnani in there to start the fourth as the only true big man with Chandler and then Stoudemire in the game.   The Knicks went on a 9-4 run to get the crowd back in it and showed greater intent than seen at any point.  The 4 in that 9-4 run is absolutely critical and that’s thanks to DeMar DeRozan (20 pts, 5-11 FG, 10-10 FT) who, after settling for a bad jumper against Kidd, went at him for two scores.  If not for that respite, this would’ve been a disastrous and potentially unrecoverable run.  Bargnani was horrid on the pick’ n roll defense, in transition, and in the set, and was yanked by Casey never to be seen again.  The commentators, especially Leo Rautins, was openly ripping him on the same plays he was making excuses for him or staying silent just a year ago.  Times are changing.

The rest of the game belonged to DeRozan, Anderson and Lucas and, in that order.  While Rudy Gay’s failed isolation plays were getting offset by Carmelo’s failed isolation plays, the difference maker was Anderson going up against Smith in late-clock situations (4 points), Lucas doing the same (6 points), and DeRozan driving to the rim to get fouled (8 points, 4-4 FTs).  It was the Raptors depth and the Knicks’ continued reliance on Anthony to produce that saw the Raptors come away with a win.

A key point in this game happened after Anthony had hit a three to bring the Knicks within 3 with 3 minutes left, and the Raptors out-of-timeout play resulted in a bad pass by DeRozan and a steal by Anthony.  DeRozan and Amir Johnson covered back to contest and prevented the house from exploding, because if the Knicks score on that break, the Raptors are under massive pressure.  Instead, the Raptors get a generous foul call and Lucas hits a sweet baseline jumper to pump it to six with 54 ticks left and that was really it.

The Raptors hit the All-Star break winners of four straight.  They have a tendency to win meaningless games to lose draft positioning late in the season, but this winning streak is too early for that.  These are actual grind-it-out wins that mean something for the other team and the Raptors are competing and coming through.    They played a faster pace game against the Nuggets, an extremely physical one against the Pacers, and overcame a struggling Rudy Gay on the road in New York.  They’re showing diversity in style of play and character in finishing the games.

A quick check of the standings has the Raptors six back of Milwaukee for the final seed.  Not that it means much in the overall direction of this franchise, but a playoff spot go some ways in announcing to the NBA that the Raptors are still part of the league.   And honestly, as a fan who has endured Colangelo’s shenanigans for the last four years, I just want to go to a home playoff game.