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Pre-Game

Gameday: Knicks @ Raptors, Feb. 8

When the dust settles from today’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, there is actual basketball to play. The Toronto Raptors are set to host the New York Knicks at the Air Canada Centre as the Boston Celtics visit the Washington Wizards, which means the Raptors could atop the Eastern Conference by the end of the night (they would have a better winning percentage, although the teams would be tied via “games behind”). The Raptors probably aren’t thinking like that just yet – not with the Celtics likely to improve Thursday, not with a couple of months of regular season left, and not with the risk of looking past a thinned-out Knicks team.

And yes, people are fond of making jokes about how the Raptors are liable to lose to a Knicks team down an entire lineup of guys. The Raptors have, on occasion, played down to opponents for quarters or even games. On the whole, though, they’ve really taken care of business – the Raptors are 20-3 against sub-.500 teams and 11-1 against them at home, the one loss being a Utah team that won’t be sub-.500 for long. This should really be no different.

The Knicks enter at 23-32, down three players to injury (including their best player), one to unhappiness, and one to trade, and they could be down a couple more come 3 p.m. Normally, they’re a league-average defense and only a slightly below-average offense, a team that causes trouble on the offensive glass but lacks the 3-point shooting and ability to get to the line to keep up on most nights. Strip Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter away and the Knicks figure to provide an opportunity for Toronto’s No. 3-ranked defense to put the clamps down and keep the workload minimal for the stars once again. Just, you know, don’t look past them, and all those things.

The game tips off at 7:30 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Jared Dubin, who writes for just about every site that takes good basketball writing, does some stuff exclusively for Patreon supporters, and has an awesome new podcast project. We exchanged emails Tuesday, and I did not have the heart to hit him up a second time about the Kristaps Porzingis injury, though he did offer a “man, basketball sucks.”

Blake Murphy: What did the Knicks do to poor Willy Hernangomez to make him ask out? This seems mean. The Knicks don’t have to Knicks everyone, do they?

Jared Dubin: Mannnnnnnn. This is something that was entirely predictable before the start of the year. The Knicks hyped Willy all offseason as part of their five-man young core that they wanted to build around. Then they made the Melo trade and acquired Enes Kanter in the deal. They had 19 centers on the roster and couldn’t find playing time for all of them during the preseason, so they would literally make some of them inactive on certain nights so the others could get more run. Hernangomez wasn’t put in position to succeed, and he didn’t succeed, so Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn won the starting and backup center jobs.

So now the Knicks have a guy that was 1st Team All-Rookie last year, makes like $5 million combined over three seasons, is best friends with their franchise player, and doesn’t want to be in New York anymore. Did nobody think to ask him if he’d want to stay if they just traded O’Quinn and/or Kanter instead? Or just let O’Quinn walk this offseason when he opts out? But to answer your second question: yes. Apparently, they do. They’ve been doing it for years. It bears mentioning once again that the last Knicks draft pick to sign a second deal with the team for longer than one year was CHARLIE WARD. He was drafted when I was 7 years old. I’m about to turn 31 in a few months.

Note: The Knicks flipped Hernangomez to Charlotte for two second-round picks on Wednesday.

Blake Murphy: #FreeWilly aside, do you think the Knicks will be active at Thursday’s trade deadline? They’re “only” four games out of a playoff spot, but that feels like a real long shot. Maybe there’s a market for a Kyle O’Quinn or a Courtney Lee?

Jared Dubin: I think they’ll make a deal if they like what they get offered. I know that’s a cop-out but it’s the truth. Hernangomez and O’Quinn are the two most likely candidates because they’ve drawn actual interest. I wouldn’t entirely rule out a trade of Courtney Lee or Lance Thomas but I haven’t heard any rumblings on either of those guys. They supposedly are unwilling to part with a first-round pick or young talent to get rid of Joakim Noah, but we’ve seen teams fold in that situation before. The only thing consistently coming out of the organization is they want to get more athletic and long on the wings. And they definitely need that.

Blake Murphy: Frankie Smokes made the Rising Stars team, and Raptors fans were a little salty he got the nod over the bench mob here, given the numbers and team play. Snub talk aside, what has Ntilikina shown in his rookie season? Is he making enough strides on the offensive end? Because that defense is very exciting.

Jared Dubin: Let’s just throw it out there: the rookie game is hot nonsense. It is absolutely unwatchable. Raptors fans should be thrilled their guys didn’t make it. It is easily the worst part of All-Star weekend. It’s an ASG-style game with significantly less (and less recognizable) talent on the floor. Blehhhh.

As far as Frankie Smokes himself, his defense has been legitimately terrific on a pretty consistent basis. He makes guys work incredibly hard to get the offense started, always has his hands up in passing lanes, and knows where to be, when, and why at all times. He’s way more advanced on that end than any rookie point guard we’ve seen in the last few years. Some of that shines through more because he mostly plays against backups, but he’s held his own against some starter-quality guys as well. I have zero worries about him being a high-level defender for a long time, and I think he’ll be able to do it against three positions with ease. (He’s 6-5 and his arms may or may not be longer than my entire body.)

I think he’s shown more off the dribble moving toward the basket than I expected this season (more so to create for others than himself), but boy does his jumper look terrible. He is almost always out of balance when shooting, whether off the dribble or off the catch. I sat next to his trainer during a recent Knicks game and he told me that’s something they’re going to work on over the summer, and I think it needs to be drilled harder than almost anything else. I don’t ever see him becoming a modern pick-and-roll point guard that runs the offense from the top of the key and picks out shooters all night, but he has a nice feel in the open floor and seems to have pretty good vision as well. If he becomes even an average finisher and/or shooter, he can and should be a starter.

Blake Murphy: Enes Kanter doesn’t have exemplary on/off splits, but it seems he’s been really good in his role here, averaging a double-double and shooting better than 60 percent from the floor. Has he changed your opinion of him at all, or what you thought of him as when the trade initially went down?

Jared Dubin: My opinion of Enes Kanter has not changed. He is an incredibly skilled scorer and one of the best rebounders in the league; he can do almost nothing else. He’s getting a ton of opportunities in New York to play in more space than he ever has, and is benefiting from playing with Kristaps Porzingis in the same way Derrick Rose did last year, only he’s a big and not a point guard. KP removes a big man from the paint and allows Kanter to eat offensive rebounds and get cleaner finishing opportunities around the rim in much the same way Rose had way more room to drive to the basket last year than he did during his final few seasons in Chicago. Kanter, again like Rose, is still a major defensive liability and has consistently hurt the team on that end for most of the season after an encouraging first few weeks.

Note: Kanter is out Thursday.

Blake Murphy: Michael Beasley: Greatest Knick, or only top-5?

Jared Dubin: Nope.

Raptors updates
Toronto comes in healthy here, though it may not mean they have a full rotation. At last update, all four usual Raptors 905ers are on the road with the G League club, so it doesn’t appear, yet, like anything’s cooking. They’re only in New York, an easy trip back, and with the Knicks as thinned-out as they are, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see one or two players recalled so the Raptors can get someone a night off or lengthen the rotation in anticipation of a potential blowout. It’s not a necessity, to be clear – the minutes for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been kept at a very reasonable level as the schedule’s gotten a bit more compressed the last two weeks, and C.J. Miles just had three games off to rest a sore knee. Maybe Serge Ibaka could use a night off that would create a four-day off-period between games. Even then, the All-Star break is around the corner and these might be post-break considerations.

The other question is how healthy Jonas Valanciunas is. He appeared to hurt his left foot in the third quarter of Tuesday’s game, and while Dwane Casey said afterward that he could have returned if needed – he, uhh, was not; thanks, Boston – if there’s any lingering soreness or discomfort, the Raptors figure to play it safe here. It’s not as if the Knicks have many centers to take advantage if Valanciunas sat or was limited here, anyway.

There’s also theoretically the chance the Raptors make a trade before 3 p.m., taking someone off the table here. Any acquisition would figure to be held out until Sunday.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: None
905: Malcolm Miller, Bruno Caboclo, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Knicks updates
Goodness, is this ever a mess of an injury report. The news Tuesday that Kristaps Porzingis has torn his ACL is gut-wrenching, a loss for the entire NBA and a huge blow to the Knicks. Hopefully he recovers quickly and fully, because he’s one of the most fun young players in basketball. He’ll be joined on the sideline by Joakim Noah (away from the team while they figure out a trade or buyout), Ron Baker (ducking Fred VanVleet with a right shoulder injury), and Enes Kanter (oral surgery). Factor in that they just traded Willy Hernangomez and are waiving Johnny O’Bryant, and the depth chart is incredibly thin even with Raptors 905-killer Luke Kornet set to get his first taste of NBA action in this one.

So, what the heck are the Knicks going to look like in this one? Other than a 50-percent usage rate for Michael Beasley, it’s tough to figure. The Knicks have only played 403 minutes in total on the year where none of the players sidelined here were on the floor, and while they’ve actually won those minutes, there aren’t a lot of large-sample lessons to draw from. A Frank Ntilikina-Courtney Lee-Doug McDermott-Michael Beasley-Kyle O’Quinn lineup (72 minutes, +11) is the most heavily used available fivesome here.

There’s also a chance that one or two veterans wind up traded by 3 p.m. What a mess.

PG: Jarrett Jack, Trey Burke, Frank Ntilikina
SG: Courtney Lee, Damyean Dotson
SF: Tim Hardaway, Doug McDermott
PF: Michael Beasley, Lance Thomas, Isaiah Hicks
C: Kyle O’Quinn, Luke Kornet
OUT: Kristaps Porzingis, Enes Kanter, Ron Baker, Joakim Noah
TBD: None
Westchester: None

The line
The line is still off the board as of 9 a.m., which is a little weird, although the trade deadline may be having an impact – four of six games tonight have their lines down right now. I’d guess the Raptors will be double-digit favorites when it goes up.

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