Why have the Raptors emerged? It could be because the bench, formerly a self-destruct button, has become serviceable. It could be because Amir Johnson, benched for Tyler Hansbrough before the trade, has averaged 16.3 points and 9.6 rebounds along with his typical excellent defence since the deal. Or it could be because the Raptors now resemble a team with principles on offence, instead of a series of players desperately trying to force the action.
Not coincidentally, Toronto has started winning a lot of games with its two sophomores excelling. If the team is to remain at the top of the hideous Atlantic Division, Valanciunas and Ross will be key components. Now that DeRozan has become the focus of opposing defences, others are needed to pick up the slack.
The 34-year-old swingman was supposed to be a spare part in the salary dump of Rudy Gay, a contract that could be bought out at an affordable price in the offseason or moved at the deadline. He still may end up being those things but two weeks into his ironic tenure in Toronto, he has brought something no one expected him to, something the Raptors have been without for years. As head coach Dwane Casey has put it, Salmons brings “old-school toughness.” “He has a settling effect when he’s in the game and it helps us,” Casey said of Salmons, who is averaging 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds, playing just under 26 minutes per game in six contests with the Raptors. “He doesn’t get rattled.”
Knicks are one of NBA’s biggest disappointments. Just 9-19 after getting demolished at home on Christmas by Oklahoma City and star forward Carmelo Anthony is questionable for the opener of this home-and-home set. If Anthony can’t go, the dropoff is steep. Ex-Raptor Andrea Bargnani sits second in scoring at 14.1 per game, J.R. Smith third at 11.9 (on 35% shooting). Though Mike Woodson is known as a top defensive coach, New York sits 25th in the league in defensive rating and even with Anthony, is just 19th in offensive rating.
While these teams meet again Saturday in Toronto, the Knicks will first try to snap a three-game home losing streak. They’re 4-11 at MSG after going 31-10 there last season. “We got to seize the moment,” Chandler said. “They’re coming to our house, we got to feel good about playing in the Garden. The Garden is our home, and we got to embrace it. We got to give our fans a show, we got to give them something to cheer about. … We got an opportunity that we got to take advantage of.”
“Whether Melo plays or doesn’t, Ray plays or doesn’t, everybody has to make plays,” Smith said. “It’s not like we can forfeit just because they’re not here. We got to play, and if we want to win, we got to play the right way.”
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