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Raptors 905 @ Westchester Knicks: Series Preview

Photo credit: Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com

One game.

That’s all that separated Raptors 905 and the Westchester Knicks over the course of a 50-game regular season, and it’s all they’ll have to settle a season-long rivalry when they meet in the Eastern Conference semi-finals on Monday. The Knicks finished one game ahead of the 905 thanks in part to a 5-10 start and a two-game skid at the end of the year for the 905, and that’s all it would have taken to flip the location of this one – the 905 and Knicks split their four-game regular season series and even tied in composite score, but the 905 would have held the edge in the sixth tiebreaker (point differential) had they won another game on a late road trip.

The teams could not have been closer on the whole. They even shared one player and saw their players make impacts against the opposite NBA parent clubs. This probably should have been the Conference Final in an ideal scenario, and it is at least fitting that they square off at some point in the postseason. It might be a one-game series, but you can consider it the Game 5 rubber match of their season-long rivalry.

“We’ve had so much Westchester this year, so it should come down to this,” Jerry Stackhouse said Friday.

The Format: In an interesting new D-League wrinkle, the road to the G League Finals is paved with one-and-done series. The expanded playoff picture also brought some curious seeding with it, and so despite finishing with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and the third-best record in the G League, the 905 landed in the fourth seed in the East. That’s because the only team better than them was their division rival, the Westchester Knicks, and division leaders are seeded one-through-three. So not only did the 905 not have a bye and have to play a game to get to this point, they’re on the road in Westchester for the second round. This, too, is a single-elimination game.

The Schedule, How to Watch, and a Ticker Discount!: The 905 are on the road until the G League Finals. This one comes to you from Westchester.

Game 1: Raptors 905 @ Westchester Knicks  Monday, April 2, 7 pm, NBA TV

The G League is looking to make sure that their playoffs don’t overlap with the NBA playoffs like they did last year (when the 905 raised the trophy as the Raptors clinched over the Bucks). The one-game format to the finals means things will move pretty quickly, and the one-game Eastern Conference Finals will likely take place later this week.

If the 905 make the finals, Raptors Republic readers will be able to use the promo code REPUBLIC905 for a discount on playoff tickets.

Season Series: The 905 and Knicks met four times during the year, not only playing to a 2-2 tie but tying in composite score. Somewhat ironically, the 905 won both early meetings while they were still struggling to find themselves as a team, while the Knicks were one of the few teams to solve the 905 – twice, no less – once they hit their stride. There is a lot of familiarity here, and the teams have grown to consider each other a rival.

The Tale of the Tape: Arguably the two best teams in the G League this year, the 905 and Knicks match each other on most fronts. They are both elite defenses, ranking first and third, respectively. And while each is middle-of-the-pack on offense, they both ranked in the top three in net rating on the year. What’s more, they prefer a similar style of game, ranking as the two slowest-paced teams in the league. There are differences in strengths, at least – the Knicks were nearly the league’s best 3-point shooting team and rely more heavily on isolation attacks thanks to their strong guard play, while the 905 move the ball a bit more, struggle from outside, and crash the glass better than anyone else to account for it. It’s unclear who the better team is given how close they’ve been all year.

In the Grand Rapids preview, I wrote that there “really couldn’t be more of a mirror-imaged battle. It’s essentially the Spiderman meme in team form.” I may have been wrong. Grand Rapids more closely matched the 905’s exact style, but when you factor in overall team quality, too, the 905 and Knicks are essentially dead even.

NBA Assignees: This is the first year where G League teams have the benefit of two-way players, and it will be interesting to see how each franchise approaches assigning their guys. Two-ways are playoff ineligible at the NBA level but eligible in the G League, and so while some teams may prefer their two-ways at the NBA level right now – the number of days they can spend in the NBA is uncapped now that the G League regular season has ended – there’s a good case to be made for assigning them for playoff experience.

The Raptors kept both of their two-ways down for the playoff opener, while the Knicks had a bye and, as of this writing, haven’t tipped their hand in terms of plans. The NBA Knicks have six players sidelined and all of their G League taxi-squad have been playing regularly. That both teams are in New York would make an up-and-down fairly seamless. Missing their assignees could hurt the Knicks despite their depth – they got 73 games out of their two-ways (Luke Kornet and Isaiah Hicks) and another 39 from Trey Burke (originally a G Leaguer, then signed) and Damyean Dotson. They also got three from Ron Baker! The Raptors, meanwhile got 152 total assignment to Westchester’s 107 (including Burke) – 35 from Alfonzo McKinnie, 34 from Malcolm Miller and Bruno Caboclo, 32 from Lorenzo Brown, and 12 from Malachi Richardson.

Luke Kornet, Knicks two-way: Raptors fans were introduced to the Unikornet on a pair of occasions, and he was just as unkind to the 905 as the type of shooting center who can draw bigs away from the rim and neutralize some of the 905’s inside advantage. Kornet has been playing close to 20 minutes for New York of late, though he’s still been drawing assignments fairly regularly. Kornet averaged 16 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.7 blocks in the G league this year, and he hit 44 percent on nearly six 3-point attempts per-game, and he was even better against the 905, averaging those same 16 points on 61.5-percent true-shooting.

Isaiah Hicks, Knicks two-way: Hicks doesn’t get the same press as some of these other names since he hasn’t had a consistent chance to make an NBA impact yet, but he’s been as instrumental as anyone for Westchester. He averaged 15.6 points on 57.7-percent shooting for the year, adding 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks and even flashing range out close to the 3-point line. He’s Westchester’s best option for matching the physical play of the 905 forwards and Westchester outscored teams by seven points per-100 possessions with him on the floor (last among these names but still terrific).

Trey Burke and Damyean Dotson, Knicks assignees: Burke has been starting at point guard for the Knicks and flirting with 40 minutes some night. He’s truly made good on his bet-on-self to try to get back to the NBA through the G League. Unfortunately for Westchester, he hasn’t been with them since Jan. 7 and may be too valuable to New York right now. Dotson, meanwhile, has been playing a smaller bench role for New York and was assigned twice in March. If either is on assignment, it’s a big swing factor – Burke was maybe the best player in the league before his call-up and Dotson was averaging 18.3 points on 58.7-percent true-shooting.

Alfonzo McKinnie, Raptors assignee: His second go-round in the G League hasn’t come with a major bump in statistical production, though McKinnie has improved his defense at both forward spots and taken an important step forward as a shooter, hitting 34.8 percent of his threes. He’s also improved as an attacker, especially when facing up opposing power forwards, and he’s had a few huge performances to lift the team, particularly on occasions that Brown wasn’t around. McKinnie’s 14 points often come in emphatic fashion, and his rebounding ability from either forward spot (7.5 per-game) is a big reason the 905 are the league’s premiere rebounding team.

Malachi Richardson, Raptors assignee: Still adjusting after a deadline trade, Richardson figures to play a smaller role in this series, likely off the bench. In 12 games since coming over from Sacramento, he’s averaging 7.2 points on 42.6-percent true-shooting, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists. He came through with his best game as a 905er in the first round of the playoffs, and if he can repeat that here, his role could expand in an important way given the team’s light shooting.

Lorenzo Brown, Raptors two-way: The team’s leader at both ends of the floor, Brown’s experience and poise are a massive luxury for a G League team to have. He also really wants to repeat the title run, and the 905 have a great chance if he’s around – Brown leads the G League in assist percentage by a wide margin at 46.3 percent and finished in the top 10 in VORP. The 905 outscored opponents by 9.8 points per-100 possessions when Brown was on the court this year, and while his 54.2 true-shooting percentage is modest, he carries a heavy offensive load with a 27.3-percent usage rate, largely against heavy pressure. Brown finished the regular season averaging 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, and 1.8 steals and should receive some MVP votes.

Malcolm Miller, Raptors two-way: The best defender on the best defense in the G League, Miller slowly picked up speed as the year rolled along and he put his offseason ankle surgery behind him. He finished the regular season not only contributing to the parent-club Raptors but with the a plus-5.2 net rating while with the 905. His counting stats don’t necessarily pop – 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists – but he’s hit 37.9 percent on a large volume of threes, has improved noticeably as a secondary playmaker (he had three or more assists nine times), and is the team’s go-to lock-down defender at multiple positions.

Depth Charts and Key Non-Assignment Players: The Knicks haven’t lost as much of a step without their assignment players as might be expected. Both Nigel Hayes and Xavier Rathan-Mayes have been plucked at times, Trey Burke was called up within the organization, and still the Knicks rolled to the best record in the league. These teams run fairly deep, playing each other tight with or without their full contingent of NBA-level talent.

Nigel Hayes, Knicks: Hayes was excellent for Westchester most of the year, making a case for most-improved (or most under-rated) G Leaguer this year. That got him a look from the Lakers, then the Raptors, and now the Kings. Hayes doesn’t figure to be available here, as if the Kings wanted him in the G League, they could assign him to their own affiliate, who are also in the playoffs. Having Hayes would have been funny for the 905 given the rivalry; Westchester losing him hurts much more.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Knicks: The Canadian turned an excellent first pro season into a 10-day with the Grizzlies, and while I was surprised he didn’t get picked up from there, I still maintain he’s an NBA player. It’s really only a consistent jumper holding him back right now, as he’s the type of long, physical, and aggressive combo-guard who brings the type of versatility NBA lineups crave. In the G League, he’s a nightly triple-double threat, averaging 16.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 7.2 assists. You couldn’t ask for a better point-guard battle than Brown against Rathan-Mayes, and there’s a secondary Canadian storyline since Rathan-Mayes played with Kaza Keane (and then was replaced by Aaron Best) in the FIBA qualifiers this year.

Billy Garrett, Paul Watson, and Zak Irvin, Knicks: None of these Westchester regulars boast the advanced impact of the assignees, but they’r major parts of the gameplan here, particularly if the team is light on assignees. Garrett is averaging 11.9 points on somewhat inefficient shooting, instead deriving value from his ability to force turnovers and work as a secondary play-maker. Irvin, meanwhile, hits the glass from the wing and scored in double-figures in five of his six March games, and Watson hits nearly 37 percent of his threes in a low-usage role.

Kennedy Meeks , 905: A candidate for the league’s most improved player over the course of the season, Meeks’ turnaround coincided with the team’s dramatic turnaround. He finished the year in the top 20 in VORP and win shares, sixth in defensive rating, third in total rebounds, and first in offensive rebound percentage. Nobody takes better advantage of an opponent on their own glass, and because Meeks is also an adept playmaker from the block or the elbows, those second chances have produced a huge benefit for a 905 offense that has often needed it. He averages 12.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, one steal, and 0.9 blocks, and his improvement defending the pick-and-roll really opened up a new gear for the 905 defense.

Shevon Thompson, 905: It may have been smarter to list him and Meeks together, because the 905 basically lose nothing when Stackhouse goes to his bench. Thompson replicates what Meeks does excellently, ranking third in offensive rebound percentage and fourth in total rebound percentage. He also shoots a higher percentage from the floor (61.4 percent, ninth in the league) because most of his looks come while ripping the rim off. The owner of the best net rating on the team and the best defensive rating in the entire league among qualified players, Thompson spelled Meeks well enough in the playoff opener that the 905 withstood a very big Grand Rapids frontcourt.

Fuquan Edwin and Davion Berry, 905: A mid-season acquisition, Edwin played so well in his 3-and-D role that he recently got bumped to the starting lineup for a while. More than half of Edwin’s shots come from outside, where he’s hitting 37.3 percent, he’s third in the G League in steal percentage, and the 905 outscore opponents by 10.3 points per-100 possessions with him on the court. Berry started the team’s first playoff game, a reward for a season of working as the team’s best bench-scorer and most reliable Swiss-army knife at both ends.

Prediction: 905 in 1, though who the Knicks assign is a huge unknown here.

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