You could say that this afternoon’s matchup against the New York Knicks is the Raptor’s most important game of the year. I mean, you’d be wrong, but you could say it.
The 2016-17 Knicks may very well go down as the most talked about least interesting team in NBA history. Off the court, they were a delightful train wreck of a reality show. It was like their now out of the spotlight stars were aware of anytime six days without a Knicks storyline went by, and like any good reality star would do, started gulping down Chardonnay, stink eyeing their rival from across the room and then charge drunkenly into an embarrassing, screaming and hair pulling confrontation. The Challenge, Bachelor in Paradise and Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta producers would all be proud. Here’s a quick breakdown of things the Knicks have done this year:
-Trade Robin Lopez, a decent player, for Derrick Rose, who hasn’t played a healthy season of basketball in 4 years.
-Support Derrick Rose through a civil sexual assault case of which even the details he was willing to admit to while being cleared were upsetting, to say the absolute least.
-Lit their cap space on fire by signing Joakim Noah, who is washed up and plays the same position as their developing franchise player, Porzingis, to a $72 million dollar contract!
-Phil Jackson continues to insist on the team playing the triangle, despite their pieces not fitting that system and that system largely having become a relic of how the game used to be played.
-Phil Jackson repeatedly undercut and criticized star player Carmelo Anthony to the media in an effort to have Carmelo waive the no-trade clause that Phil Jackson had given him the summer before. This story never really stopped getting stranger.
-James Dolan, title-contender for least liked owner in sports, had retired Knicks great Charles Oakley kicked out of MSG, arrested and banned for life and then casually insinuated that Oakley had some sort of alcohol, drug or mental problem that he needed help for.
-Kristaps Porzingis, the only good thing to happen to the Knicks in recent yeats, took a slight step backwards in his development while the team insisted on playing Noah at Centre, running everything through Carmelo and Rose and committing to the triangle instead of grooming one of the best young assets in basketball.
-Joakim Noah, who was terrible before an injury knocked him out for the season, tested positive for a banned substance and faces a 20-game suspension. Whatever supplements he was taking, rest assured that they do not work.
-Derrick Rose’s knee died, again, and he got his fourth knee surgery.
-The Knicks lost at least 50 games for the third straight year, but once again were just slightly competent enough to get out of the top five in the lottery.
Now, while I’m dumping on the Knicks, I should give them credit for two positive things. First, Carmelo came out of all of this Phil Jackson nonsense looking like a genuine elder statesman. He’s played hard, been remarkably well disciplined with the media and never lost his cool despite how appalling the way his employer treated him. Secondly, the Knicks gave us this highlight, their final perfect, symbolic gift of one of the better on/off court basketball schadenfreude seasons in recent memory.
To get back to reality though, this game matters to the Raptors because it offers them an opportunity to continue to work Kyle Lowry back into the flow they developed post-ASG in his absence. In Lowry’s return against the Pistons, the team surged back to their high scoring ways but gave up a now uncharacteristic efficiency offensively to the Pistons. On Friday against the Heat, the Raptors offense was a grind but their defense was back to top notch. It would be reassuring to see the Raptors tie both ends of the court together against a bad Knicks team that ought to be trying to lose as there is only 2 wins losses separating them from 4 other teams jostling for lottery balls.
This isn’t a throw away game for the Dinos. The Raptors will be looking to complete the season sweep over the Knicks, as they won the first two matchups by double-digits before sneaking out a 1-point win in their most recent game at MSG. But more important than clinching a sweep over a division rival is that with Washington’s loss last night to Miami, the Raptors now have a full game lead on the 3rd seed. They hold the tie-breaker and each team has two games left. All the Raptors need is a win over the Knicks or a Washington loss to clinch the 3rd spot in playoff seeding. If the Cavs hold firm to #1, that’s huge. The 12 noon Raptors Sunday game (the JR Smith special) has been notoriously hard to predict for years, but with playoff seeding and momentum on the line, I would expect to see the Raptors bring the kind of intensity needed to handle a bad team who is incentivized to lose.