There are no trap games, not for this iteration of the Raptors. Coming off an emotional high after beating the Houston Rockets in a candidate for game of the year, a pessimistic fan might expect the Raptors to lay an egg against the Knicks. Luke Kornet would even slam home the Knicks’ first basket, supporting that (later-proved false) theory. Instead, the Raptors would dominate wire-to-wire against the Knicks, scoring 132 despite Lowry and DeRozan only combining for 25 points.
Norman Powell started well for the Raptors, scoring an early basket on a quick cut down the middle and finishing with a floater over a Knicks big. It’s important for Powell to develop those off-ball skills, especially during a down season for his jumper; he can’t maximize his talents as a fifth option who needs the ball in his hands to be effective. He played a solid, if unexceptional game, which is exactly the progress the Raptors want from him.
However, the Raptors starters proved ineffective early. DeMar DeRozan missed a jumper while trying to bait Hardaway into a foul on a free-throw line jumper. Kyle Lowry missed a 3 and turned the ball over looking for Jonas Valanciunas. Meanwhile Kornet launched 6 early field goal attempts, even connecting on a 3 to draw Valanciunas out of the paint.
Lowry connected with his center later, pump-faking a pass to Powell behind the arc (drawing a Knicks defender out of the paint), and then finding Valanciunas for an easy layup. Despite the occasional highlight for the Raptors, it was free throws that kept them in the game early. Valanciunas scored on 6 first quarter freebies (he would finish with a monstrous 9/10 from the line on the game in only 22 minutes).
Valanciunas continued his early-quarter domination when Kyle O’Quinn replaced Kornet as the Knicks’ pivot. The big Lithuanian dominated on cuts, dives, and post ups, bringing his scoring total to 10 before he left the game with 4:00 remaining in the frame. Despite that, the Raptors were unable to gain any separation in the first quarter, even with their typically strong end-of-quarter DeRozan+bench rotation. C.J. Miles was able to break the monotony by banking home a deeeep 3 to end the quarter, giving the Raps a 32-27 lead.
Then the bench mob hit the floor. Poeltl displayed his budding on-court chemistry with Siakam, dishing an underhand scoop pass for a layup, which was followed by a Fred VanVleet 3 in semi-transition. Siakam finished a layup after cutting in the lane, and he then returned the favour to Poeltl, who finished with a push shot. The lead had bloomed to 9, and every Raptors’ basket in the frame was assisted; the bench mob is so fun and effective, it’s ridiculous.
Lowry returned to the game to offer some vaunted triple point guard minutes, and Delon Wright responded with a fancy spinning, scooping layup. It was Wright’s first game back after a toe injury, and his pivoting, juking, and slashing seemed just fine. When he penetrates deep into the paint, the bench offence can score in the half-court against anyone. When he lacks that first burst in changing direction, their half-court offence bogs down. Yesterday was a prime example of the former (and him shooting 2/2 from 3 in the game didn’t hurt, either).
Tim Hardaway jr. was just about the only thing keeping New York in the game. He hit triples, finished and-1 in transition, and was able to keep a stagnant offence on the scoreboard. He finished with 25 in the game.
Near the end of the second quarter, the Raptors offered some comedy by missed 6 shots (including several missed layups just from Ibaka) in one possession. Lots of rebounding, not much shot-making. It was a ho-hum minute. Malcolm Miller hit a 3 on the next possession to break the drought. Even though the Raptors were up 7, it felt like they were hardly playing. Lowry and Ibaka picked up a pair of technical, perhaps trying to lift their team’s energy levels. Ibaka responded, blocking a Frankie Smokes layup into the crowd on the next defensive possession. Malcolm Miller needed no boost, hitting another, buzzer-beating, 3 to end the half.
Ibaka opened the second half with a made 3 – does he always play better after jawing at and/or shoving opponents? If so, I’m glad 70% of the NBA players seemingly despise him. Powell hit his first 3 of the game – an encouraging sight after a few misses and even more passed-on looks – in transition on an open corner look. It’s good to see him continue shooting. Valanciunas followed up that highlight with a fake handoff, spinning to his right and cramming over every Knick and the Empire State building as well.
Hardaway continued scoring at will. Valanciunas gave him a hard foul in transition; he made his free throws. He hit his jumpers, made his layups, and kept the game from being a blowout (but not for long). But the Raptors were winning without their stars! Lowry’s first 3 came halfway through the third on a deep triple. Hardaway responded with a pull-up long bomb of his own. Lowry finished and-1 over (more like through) Beasley on the next play, and the game was officially a barn burner! Lowry hit a corner triple only a moment later, making it 9 in a row for the diminutive guard.
The starters played deep into the third quarter, with a Valanciunas post-up over O’Quinn pushing the lead to 89-75 with 4 minutes remaining. The Raptors slowly grew their lead, making Emmanuel Mudiay beat them (he rarely did) on offence, and letting their role players score the majority of their own points. The offence was fluid and pass-happy. DeRozan finished the game shooting 4/16, and it didn’t matter! Another Siakam-Poeltl connection pushed the lead to 16 to end the quarter; those two dudes look for each other, and it shows.
The fourth quarter was entirely garbage time, though it was potentially the most fun time of the game (for Raps fans). The bench mob played to start the quarter, which is unfair and just a method to run the score up, even though the lineup is all-bench. The bench finished with 69 points. Siakam dished 6 assists, many of which came via advanced, ‘see ahead of the play’ vision. His playmaking has improved dramatically, which gives the Raptors an important weapon alongside their deadly backcourt.
In the final frame, Wright continued his patient, probing handles in the half-court. VanVleet continued his hot shooting from deep (the Raps finished 45.7% from range). Siakam finished in transition. Basically, the Raps just continued Raps-ing. But what made the 4th quarter so fun? Nigel Hayes – a recent call-up and 10-day contract signee for the Raps – got some time! He has been one of the leaders of the Westchester Knicks this season, who rival the 905 for supremacy in the East. That Hayes played against the New York Knicks is poetic, and boy did he play well.
Hayes finished with 6 points on two attempted shots (both made 3s) and even a few words directed at the Knicks bench after hitting a 3 directly in front of his would-be teammates. I’m glad he’s a Raptor and not a Knick. Hayes played within a lineup of Wright-Powell-Miller-Hayes-Nogueira, and they finished with a net rating of +18.0 in 5 minutes. Hayes was mobbed by his Raptors teammates, who cheered on his success like he was one of their own children.
The garbage Knicks couldn’t find time for a player the caliber of Hayes – who was dominating for their G-League affiliate all season – only for him to succeed for the Raptors against those same trash Knicks? That just about tells the story of the game (and season, and general competence of the two franchises) right there.