Should I have just copy and pasted one of my recaps from the last few games? Perhaps, because the Toronto Raptors played to the script once again on Thursday as they ran the New York Knicks off the Air Canada Centre floor to the tune of a 113-88 final.
This wasn’t the Raptors’ best performance by any measure. It was a game in which only one starter really had it offensively, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined for 15 points on 26 possessions with eight assists, and they still wound up as positives because their defense was effective against a thinned-out Knicks team. It was also another game in which the bench eviscerated an overmatched opponent, five bench players ended up in double-figures, and Pascal Siakam tallied six assists while pushing the ball in transition, initiating the offense in semi-transition, and even ran some plays out of timeouts. It was another thorough victory at something less than top gear and another marquee bench-mob game. Ho-hum.
“The second unit is playing the game the right way,” Dwane Casey said. “They’re executing defensively, they’re getting after it. They’re assisting – I don’t know how many assists they had – they’re moving the ball, zinging the ball and making shots.”
The Raptors came out looking to either put Jonas Valanciunas’ mind at ease after the earlier DeAndre Jordan rumor or leverage any residual anger at it. Valanciunas was a terror early on, starting the game with a three and following it with free throws, and elbow jumper, and an offensive rebound for a bucket. In between scores, he also helped create an open Serge Ibaka three with the attention he’s commanding with DeMar DeRozan in the pick-and-roll, and those two converged on Michael Beasley on the baseline to force an early turnover. Beasley was getting just as many touches as Valanciunas, naturally, and the Raptors did a good job using that to their advantage and generally keeping the Knicks outside of the paint.
While Toronto’s non-Valanciunas offense was a little slow to get going, there were positive signs as they eased into things. OG Anunoby missed a pair of otherwise good looks, Ibaka made a smart cut off the ball, and the Knicks mostly settled for what Toronto wanted to concede at the other end. Anunoby eventually broke through with a corner three off of a nice Ibaka pass in a four-on-three situation, the bench kept the defensive intensity up, and even with DeMar DeRozan really struggling to get going as a scorer with an 0-of-5 start (before a deep three), a 33-percent shooting quarter still saw the Raptors ahead five. This, despite Luke Kornet making his NBA debut and promptly hitting a three, as the Legend of Zeller foretold.
The palpable disinterest in the Air Canada Centre wasn’t entirely exterminated by the bench group as it often is, but Pascal Siakam did his best to keep the team in control, scoring on a nice dish from Jakob Poeltl on a cut, following it up with a push-shot in the paint, then stopping an Isaiah Hicks post-up. There wasn’t a ton of offense to speak of, leaving Poeltl’s rim protection to help fuel drives the other way. Even when the Knicks produced something – another Kornet three, of course – Siakam responded with an and-one in the post or Poeltl drove for an and-one. Eventually, those small edges became a proper run punctuated by a pair of Delon Wright highlights (that scoop shot), and the Raptors’ bench wound up adding six points to the lead over more than six minutes of rest for the stars.
“Bench been great,” DeRozan said. “For us, we know how hard they work. They’re the first ones in the gym working every single day, so when they go out there and do things like that, you know, it’s not surprising.”
The starters didn’t exactly gear up to pull away from there, and Dwane Casey even got some more experimental short-sample minutes with C.J. Miles in place of Anunoby (one day we’ll get a meaningful stretch). The same story resurfaced from early on, with the Raptors continuing to produce solid looks and just missing them. The two teams combined to shoot 39 percent in the half with 12 turnovers, a slog that allowed a Knicks team at least bringing effort in lieu of rotation pieces to hang around through to halftime. A late Kyle Lowry triple got him on the board, Valanciunas made some nice reads, and a late Ibaka three kept the lead at 11, striking distance yet a comfortable one built primarily on the play of the four bigs.
Lowry and DeRozan started the second half slowly, too, Lowry content to fire from outside and DeRozan unable to get off clean forays to the rim. Valanciunas continued to be a difference maker at that end – he even got his own miss off of a three – but things devolved quickly, the entire team losing the plot on offense to settle for mediocre shots. Complaints to the officials began, too, as the Knicks quickly got into the bonus against some lethargic defense and DeRozan earned a technical. Casey opted not to go to the bench early and was rewarded with a quick 11-2 run highlighted by another Valanciunas three, two great rim contests from Valanciunas, and an Anunoby offensive rebound for an and-one.
The Miles-and-starters group got another quick look, too, with Miles promptly hitting a three. The DeRozan-and-bench then had the unenviable task of slowing down Beasley – eight points in the quarter, 21 on 17 possessions in the game – and even with Beasley cooking, that group was able to keep up the run, ending the quarter on a 6-1 spurt after Wright came in for an all-nehc look. Without much pomp, the Raptors had their largest lead of the game at 16 entering the fourth.
Fred VanVleet apparently wanted to get more “get the starters rest” questions after the game and did his best to lock it up, willing his way to a steal after he’d committed a turnover and then finishing a tough layup the other way. It wasn’t all pretty. Kornet blocked Poeltl at one point. And then Poeltl dunked all over him for revenge. The bench even picked up the 3-point shooting to help the final game line (16-of-43 with 31 total assists on 43 field goals) look more respectable. It just kept rolling like that, because the Raptors didn’t have any 905ers on hand to take over for the bench – Lucas Nogueira and Normal Powell would each get four minutes at least, the lead up to 29 at that point. They’d close out from there.
This is the fourth game in a row that has followed a similar path late. Neither Lowry nor DeRozan have topped 30 minutes in any of those games and the Raptors have won them by a total of 85 points (those teams are a combined one game under .500, too).
“Starters didn’t have a rhythm tonight,” Casey said. “We want to make sure we maintain they’re rhythm. We’re winning, they’re still an important part of our team so we have to make sure we find that offensive rhythm. It’s been hard for them to get one, especially when they don’t go in that last quarter.”
It’s absolutely true that it would be better if DeRozan were scoring more effectively of late, if Lowry didn’t shoot 2-of-10, or if they could both find it on the same night, but this is what depth is all about, and what the new system was designed to empower – the Raptors can beat, nay, destroy opponents even when their All-Stars aren’t playing quite to that level and buy them time to get right, minutes to get rest, and the confidence to know they don’t need to force it. Things really are unfolding differently than a year ago, and the Raptors should be better for it down the line.
“For us, you kinda appreciate it more in the long-run, ’cause there’ll be moments in the season where we play through a lot of things and really don’t have time to let things heal and get back feeling as close to 100 percent as possible,” DeRozan said. “Games like this give us that opportunity to be able to not nag anymore injuries anymore, be able to heal, be able to feel good the next two days, so for us, it’s beneficial.”
They now have another two days off before picking back up for a brief flurry of pre-All-Star activity, the chance to enter the break atop the Eastern Conference and as the league’s lone top-five team on both ends still firmly within reach.