Tests don’t come in a set format over the course of an 82-game season. Teams can be measured by quality of opponent, difficulty of schedule, or how they fight through their own internal adversity. For the Toronto Raptors of the last half-decade, one of their biggest challenges has sometimes been lethargy borne of complacency, manifesting in an inability to bring a force of play consistently when their backs aren’t against the wall.
On Friday, they hosted the New York Knicks, a team playing fairly well but, on paper, overmatched. The Raptors entered on a high, winners of three of four on a very tough stretch, returning home after nearly a week away. It had the makings of a trap game, and any absence of energy would be threatened by a thinned-out bench’s potentially weakened ability to pick the starters up from a slow start. That challenged depth was due to three injuries to primary rotation players, with Delon Wright, Norman Powell, and Serge Ibaka all sitting, forcing OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam into the starting lineup, a spot they’ve both filled in but never together.
The young forward duo was up to the challenge, as they’ve so often been, supporting the holdovers with strong individual performances and a plus-11 mark when they shared the floor, lifting the Raptors to an emphatic 107-82 victory.
OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam have now played 65 minutes together. +28.5 net rating (100.6 D-Rating).
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) November 18, 2017
The Raptors got out to a strong start, with their All-Stars finding seams to attack quickly, namely in the form of Enes Kanter in the pick-and-roll. DeMar DeRozan continued to do a good job balancing his attacking and play-making, dishing five assists in the first quarter as the Knicks freely collapsed to keep him out of the paint. The supporting cast responded well, with Anunoby sticking a corner three and Siakam stretching the floor vertically as an unreasonably fast leak-out threat. The Raptors finished the first quarter shooting 50 percent with three threes and eight free throws (how do you foul C.J. Miles on threes twice in a quarter?), but it was their defense that helped build an early 30-18 lead.
Armed with lessons from the Anthony Davis matchup and some capable bodies to throw at him, the Raptors were ready for Kirstaps Porzingis early on. Siakam drew the primary assignment and kept him from getting his usual early position in the post in semi-transition, Anunoby’s presence allowed the Raptors to switch dual-screens more easily and prevent big-small mismatches, and Lucas Nogueira provided some great minutes off the bench, blocking Porzingis in close and then erasing what appeared to be a wide-open three on a kick-out. Short of an early Jarrett Jack heater and the usual Doug McDermott Air Canada Centre cooking, the Knicks struggled, shooting 23 percent with only three second-chances off of their 20 misses.
“They did a great job, man,” DeROzan said of the young frontcourt pieces. “There’s so much you could say about them, but they always step up to the challenge, no matter who it’s against. Last game it was DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, now it’s Porzingis. Them guys always step up to the plate and somehow make it tough on those guys.”
That momentum continued into the second, with Nogueira blocking another shot, finishing his second lob of the night, and early bringing the house down with an errant three following a Fred VanVleet crossover. VanVleet followed it up with a three of his own and then Lowry did the same, the new-look three-point guard lineup featuring Lorenzo Brown continuing to stretch the lead out. At one point, the Raptors were up 19, which is where the Knicks have seemed to thrive against teams so far this year.
Jakob Poeltl had some nice possessions against Kanter but picked up three quick fouls, and that seemed to turn the momentum a bit. Kanter followed by scoring on Jonas Valanciunas in the post, then a transition turnover led to a Porzingis corner three, threatening to take the lead back to single-digits. A Lowry-to-DeRozan connection on an alley-oop put that idea to rest, and Lowry followed by finding Siakam in transition for an easy two. The full contingent of starters filtering back in helped finish the half strong, and the Knicks found themselves stuck 18 with a woeful 75.7 offensive rating at the break.
Let's fly, let's fly away ✈️ pic.twitter.com/WJuhxKR0aW
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 18, 2017
“I was really impressed with our overall defense,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “We were on point, had a few breakdowns but I thought did a good job. Make some of our corner threes, our offence is even better. That’s what we’re striving for, to make sure we hit our open corner threes.”
Some of the Knicks open looks started to drop in the second half. The Raptors may have been guilty of taking their foot off the gas scrambling back out to shooters and getting a bit careless with the ball, but it’s also just hard to hold a team to 23-percent shooting all game. Casey opted to settle things down after a Knicks mini-run just to be sure, and it briefly seemed to settle them. Lowry and Siakam continued to work a beautiful emerging chemistry with some give-and-gos and transition pushes and Nogueira followed an airballed three he had to take with a fourth block of the night, but it still took a late push from a bench group led by an aggressive DeRozan – including Miles breaking Doug McDermott’s spell on the Raptors with a massive help block – to keep the lead at a comfortable 14 entering the fourth.
Looking for an instant comeback, the Knicks turned to Michael Beasley, kickstarting a 6-2 mini-run that led to an early Lowry re-entry and Poeltl getting a crack at Kyle O’Quinn. Anunoby and Poeltl scored on impressive forays to the rim, Lowry continued his tremendous and creative playmaking of late, Miles canned a pair of back-breaking threes, and the lubricated cries of “Bruno!” picked back up in the ACC’s lower bowl. Lowry and DeRozan both crossed the 20-point plateau with rase, pushing the lead itself back past 20, and there was a moment where it seemed like even visiting old friend Sonny Weems may get a chance to get some garbage time run.
“That’s huge,” Casey said of the stars combining for 44 points on 28 shots with just three free-throw attempts. “I think Kyle’s getting it back, you see the bounce in his step, the rhythm of his shot is coming back. DeMar is doing a good job of quarterbacking. At the end of the day the other guys have to make their shots and make their open looks, and they’re getting that confidence to do it.”
Siakam more or less put things away from there, and with a little under three minutes to go, Casey emptied out somewhat of a new look bench. (Sadly, it did not include Caboclo.) Siakam’s performance was yet another in a string of statement games for a sophomore who looks dramatically improved from an ill-fated starting stretch to begin his career. He scored 13 points here with five assists and three blocks, and he helped hold Porzingis to a 3-of-13 night from the floor.
— Jordan Tomiyama (@Jttomiyama) November 18, 2017
“I take that challenge as a player,” he said of guarding Porzingis. “You come on the floor and you try to do the best you can. If I get to guard the best player on the team it gets me excited. I’m just a competitive player so I like that.”
This is what the Raptors have shown, if nothing else this year: They have the depth to withstand short-term adversity. Even down three primary rotation players against an opponent who entered playing quite well, the Raptors gave the Knicks little room to take advantage. Strong starts and consistent energy over four quarters have at times been problems in the early part of the season, and for a night they were decidedly ironed out. It’s no secret that the Raptors’ young players have lifted them at times, and when they play at that level and the stars play like stars, the Raptors can look like one of the more complete and impressive units going.
The Knicks have a bit of lingering reputation about them that may make this feel like less of a dominant victory, but they were the league’s No. 6 offense before this game and the Raptors held them to 93 points per-100 possessions, a suffocating mark that should impress regardless of New York’s early schedule. The offense continues to hum at a near-elite rate, and the Raptors dished 29 assists to give them 84 over their last three games (with an improved assist-to-turnover rate from last year, a good sign on a night where their modest volume of threes only fell at an average rate.
It’s another small test passed as the Raptors continue to mount a strong, if occasionally frustrating, start to the year. Getting a victory back from the Washington Wizards on Sunday ahead of another three-game road trip would be another step in the direction they want to keep heading.
Bruno Caboclo, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Lorenzo Brown will all be with Raptors 905 tomorrow (2pm). Malcolm Miller will make his season debut, too.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) November 18, 2017