Don’t look now, but the Toronto Raptors are through by far the toughest part of their schedule for 2017-18, and they’ve survived some early season tests. Through injuries, travel, and quality competition, the Raptors are 9-5, owners of the No. 2 offense in the NBA with an average defense and an impressive depth built on youth that are largely ahead of schedule. As things get easier from here, the Raptors will have to fight to keep their focus against lesser teams, to ward off any inclination to revert to their previous ways, and to manage around the inconsistencies that are likely to come with a pretty inexperienced second unit.
Those tests continue Friday as a very fun New York Knicks team visits. The Knicks aren’t exceptional, but they’re young, fun, and try hard, the type of team that can take advantage of an opponent taking them lightly or taking a foot off the gas. They enter at 8-6 with a strong offense and a defense that isn’t bad at all, playing a style where they slow things down and shrink the game a bit to allow for some variance and invites mistakes. Outside of offensive rebounding and the wonder that is Kristaps Porzingis, they don’t do anything exceptionally well, but they’re also light on glaring weaknesses, other than maybe their 3-point shooting. The Raptors will have to treat them with the proper energy and respect, something that’s at times been difficult for full games this year.
The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One ad TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: Kristaps Porzingis, man. I can’t help but feel like the Knicks blogosphere deserves this. You’ve been given so much garbage to write through basically since blogging became a thing, and as a collective, you have a better blog presence than any other team. Now, after sludging through all of that, you’ve been gifted a walking Free Darko painting in Porzingis, a ludicrous blend of length, skill, shooting, and defensive potential. I don’t even have a question, I’m just really happy for you.
Jared Dubin: I’m happy for me, too. That dude is awesome and I deserve to have someone that awesome on my favorite basketball team, which rarely ever gets awesome things.
In all seriousness, his improvement this year has been incredible to witness. The ability to create for himself from anywhere on the floor has opened up parts of his game that I didn’t think existed — or could exist. His realization that he can literally just shoot right over anybody, at any time, is one of the most valuable realizations any player in the league has had this season. Even if he drops off from this blistering start, the early stretch of this season has proven that he is at worst a bona fide offensive superstar, and at best, completely unstoppable. It’s pretty fun.
Blake Murphy: The Knicks are out to a 7-6 start with a good offense and a defense that’s not as bad as initially expected. The move from the Carmelo Anthony toward a more youth-oriented approach was smart and overdue, but with the team looking a little ahead of where most pegged them, where should their focus lie? Is a playoff berth and the experience that comes with a round of playoffs worth a lesser pick in the draft, or will we see the Knicks make some subtle lose-now decisions as the year rolls along?
Jared Dubin: The start has been super-fun, but I don’t know that the 7-6 record (prior to the Jazz game that will tip off 20 minutes after I write this email) reflects the way they’ve played this year. They’ve definitely played better than I expected, but two of their seven wins required massive fourth-quarter comebacks. If they were 5-8 right now, I’m not sure how many people would be talking about the resurgent Knicks. I don’t think they should necessarily be concentrated on the playoffs or on tanking. They should just roll the ball out, see what happens, and let KP and Ntilikina try to win games for them. If they win, great! That means the kids did well and they’re on their way to getting better. If they lose, they lose and they wind up with a better chance at a high pick. They need to resist the urge to try to do something just because something can be done. Be patient for once.
Blake Murphy: How proud of Frank Ntilikina were you for standing up to LeBron James on Monday? I know the Knicks ultimately dropped that game, but there were some positives within, right?
Jared Dubin: Frankie Smokes is a made guy. Do not mess with a made guy.
You have no idea how happy it makes me that there is a chance that the best defensive point guard the Knicks have had in my lifetime will not have been a guy that went to Florida State (Charlie Ward). Frank’s length and instincts have already made him a plus on defense, which is rare for a point guard, and even rarer for a rookie. I’m super excited about what he’ll bring on that end of the floor. I’m less enthused about his ceiling offensively, but I think he can be a really solid player on that end. Probably not a primary creator in the mold of most modern lead guards, but eventually average or better on offense. That, plus great D makes for a really nice player.
Blake Murphy: Michael Beasley: Knick for life now, or was always really a Knick in the first place?
Jared Dubin: No.
Blake Murphy: Having a boatload of centers has looked a little odd, but it’s paying some obvious dividends. The Knicks are second in offensive rebounding rate, for example, thanks in large part to Enes Kanter. Given a partial seasons to get an intimate look at Kanter, can he be a piece this team builds with from here, or is he superfluous the second another team shows interest? Free Kyle O’Quinn?
Jared Dubin: I think whichever of Kanter or O’Quinn draws serious enough interest first will get shown the door, but that is based on nothing other than my belief that they will eventually want to get Willy Hernangomez minutes because they’re squandering one of the best non-rookie-scale-non-max contracts in the league by plastering him on the bench. The only guys guaranteed to be in New York beyond this year are Kristaps, Frank, and Hardaway.
Toronto was hit with the bad news Thursday that Delon Wright has once again dislocated his right shoulder. They haven’t put a timeline on things yet, but Wright is definitely out Friday, opening up an expanded opportunity for Fred VanVleet. VanVleet’s been solid in a role that’s expanded beyond a traditional third-stringer, and the team clearly trusts him to handle a typical backup role. Wright’s injury still poses a large challenge, though, with no room for another VanVleet cold stretch and perhaps only Lorenzo Brown as insurance behind that. Brown has all 45 days left on the NBA half of his two-way contract and could be recalled for depth. DeMar DeRozan may even see time as the de facto point guard in bench groups if VanVleet struggles as the lead initiator.
Norman Powell’s status is still up in the air, too. He’s missed the last two games with a right hip pointer and is listed in the game notes as doubtful. If he can’t go, there’s a doubling effect here since Wright was spending a lot of time on the wing in bench groups. It would probably mean OG Anunoby continues to start and that C.J. Miles is a threat to finally play 20 minutes. If Powell can go, there’s a case to be made he should come off the bench when he does, not because of his own performance or Anunoby’s necessarily but because the second unit could really use another lead ball-handler and someone who can create for themselves with Wright out. Powell fits the bill and would be a nice fit alongside Miles.
The big-man rotation has started to sort itself out some with Anunoby starting at the three and Jakob Poeltl moving ahead of Lucas Nogueira (or so it seems, at least). Whether this all means the rotation tightens or just that new players become the 11th and 12th men will be an interesting storyline to watch, though logic certainly suggests the injuries will tighten things up.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: (Norman Powell), OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Delon Wright
TBD: Norman Powell
905: Malcolm Miller, Lorenzo Brown, Bruno Caboclo
The Knicks may end up with a full squad here or could be a little shorthanded, visiting Toronto with three players whose statuses are up in the air. Courtney Lee tweaked his hamstring on Wednesday but said Thursday that he anticipates playing here, Ron Baker has been dealing with ankle soreness, and Willy Hernangomez has missed two games in a row due to illness. A Lee absence would loom large on the wing and in terms of who DeMar DeRozan’s primary defender is, while Baker and Hernangomez wouldn’t be huge losses based on recent rotations.
Elsewhere, the Knicks pose problems. Jarrett Jack isn’t much to fear, but Frank Ntilinika could frustrate Kyle Lowry or DeRozan at the other end, and Kristaps Porzingis is a walking matchup nightmare. Enes Kanter should prove a fun battle for Jonas Valanciunas, too, and the Raptors will probably need to stay big often to avoid being bled on their own glass against the league’s best offensive rebounding team.
PG: Jarrett Jack, Frank Ntilikina, Ramon Sessions, (Ron Baker)
SG: (Courtney Lee), Damyean Dotson
SF: Tim Hardaway, Doug McDermott
PF: Kristaps Porzingis, Lance Thomas, Michael Beasley
C: Enes Kanter, Kyle O’Quinn, (Willy Hernangomez), Joakim Noah
TBD: Ron Baker, Willy Hernangomez, Courtney Lee
Westchester: Isaiah Hicks, Luke Kornet
The Raptors are 8-point favorites with a 217 over-under.