The Toronto Raptors are on one, to some degree. Winners of four in a row, they’re an errant DeMar DeRozan buzzer-beater from having railed off seven consecutive victories against pretty solid competition (even if a few stars have been missing on the opponent side, counterbalancing Toronto’s own injury trouble). Their offense is humming, even with occasionally shaky shooting, and the defense has at least been fine. They are good, at 11-5 and with the toughest part of their schedule out of the way.
They are not, however, satisfied.
“No,” DeRozan said bluntly at practice Tuesday when asked if it feels like the team is playing great. “We’re figuring it out and getting more and more comfortable with it. We’re nowhere close to satisfied or happy or feeling like we’re there yet. We’ve got a long way to go.”
That’s the attitude a team has to maintain as they round into an easier stretch, and it will be interesting to see how the perception of the team changes if they continue to pile up wins against competition perceived to be inferior. They are already on the rise in RR’s prefered Power Rankings source, and they’re about to draw the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, and Indiana Pacers on the road over four days. Bovada will offer odds for the upcoming matches that show the Raptors as favorites in all three encounters, but tight road-trips are tough regardless, and the Knicks’ offseason moves are paying off (whether by addition or subtraction).
The Raptors will need to remain vigilant in fighting any complacency or hubris. That starts with beating the Knicks for a second time in under a week.
The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN and Sportsnet 590.
To help set the stage, I’m just re-hashing last weeks’ gameday, when we linked up with Jared Dubin. Little has changed since Friday, so let’s just run it back. Jared, by the way, writes for just about every site that takes good basketball writing, and some stuff exclusively for Patreon supporters.
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.
The big news the Raptors are waiting on is how Delon Wright’s visit with a specialist in New York went (or is presently going, or will go later tonight). Until that news comes down, it’s fair to assume Wright is out indefinitely, with Fred VanVleet and Lorenzo Brown seeing an uptick in time at the point guard position as a result.
Brown’s time could be somewhat tenuous, though, if Norman Powell returns. He’s moved from being doubtful each game to being questionable for this one, and the team will see how he feels throughout gameay before making a firm decision. Dwane Casey conceded Tuesday that the starting small forward position could be fluid now that OG Anunoby has offered a different look there, and Wright’s absence is a strong argument for Powell, a natural attacker the second unit is at times in need of, to come off the bench rather than reclaim his starting spot. It wouldn’t be a punishment or loss of his job but a way to maximize the entire rotation over 48 minutes and perhaps a way to get Powell going offensively after a few games off.
If Powell can’t go, things will look largely as they have and as they did Friday, though Serge Ibaka will be back for an additional look to throw at Kristaps Porzingis, Enes Kanter, and Kyle O’Quinn.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: 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, Bruno Caboclo
Jeff Hornacek gave the Raptors a pretty good look at how the Knicks operate on Friday, as he didn’t diverge from his regular rotation patterns until the game seemed out of hand late. That doesn’t mean things will be as seamless the second time around, as Kristaps Porzingis will almost surely play better, and the Knicks have an exaggerated penchant for playing well at home. The Raptors are preparing for Porzingis as if he’s a puzzle still to be solved, as they should – the assumption can’t be that what worked once will work each time out.
“We’ve got some different things we want to do,” Casey said Tuesday. “They’re a different team at home. They’re a totally different team at Madison Square Garden. I don’t know why. They play with much more confidence. (Porzingis) plays with much more confidence there. Their whole team does…Our mindset has to be prepared for a little bit of everything as far as how we cover him at Madison Square Garden, as well as Hardaway, as well as keeping Kanter off the boards.”
Frank Ntilikina has been dealing with an illness but is expected to play. Tim Hardaway has likewise been dealing with “intense soreness” in his left foot but has no intention of missing time. That leaves Ron Baker as the lone player on the shelf, as he’s dealing with an ankle injury with no clear timeline for return. Again, we could be robbed of a Wichite State showdown.
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
Westchester: Isaiah Hicks, Luke Kornet
The Raptors are 4-point favorites with a 212 over-under.