Pre-Game

Gameday: Raptors @ Knicks, Feb. 9

A new beginning. A new balance, if you will.

Marc Gasol is a Toronto Raptor and is hopeful of making his debut against the New York Knicks — there are still some medical/paperwork aspects of the trade to be completed. Don’t be surprised if Nick Nurse picks the Spaniard’s brain for a scouting report as Gasol’s final game as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies came at Madison Square Garden. He had 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a 96-84 win.

How much there really is to scout about this Knicks team is another question entirely, as they’re deep in the race for most ping pong balls come the draft lottery. They’ve lost 15 straight and are a spectacularly embarrassing 3-30 over their last 33 games. Can’t imagine why Kristaps wanted out.

Dennis Smith Jr. has been handed all the keys with both Emmanuel Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina out with injury and dropped 31 points on 15 shots (11-of-19 at the free-throw line) to go along with eight assists in a blowout loss to the Detroit Pistons.

I anticipate Gasol being a permanent starter and Serge Ibaka coming off the bench. Nick Nurse has said he hasn’t determined yet what he’d like to do and how he’d like to use them but if you traded for someone in the hopes they’d be rejuvenated in a winning title contending situation and replicate the three all-star seasons he’s had for the remainder of the regular season and a deep playoff run, you start him and ride with him until circumstances dictate otherwise.

If things play out that way, it’s a pity for Ibaka, really, as he’s having an excellent season as the team’s starting center. But so was Jonas Valanciunas as the team’s (primarily) backup center, and he’s gone. So, I guess Ibaka can’t be too mad about his situation if things do indeed play out that way.

Inspired by Eric Koreen’s personal reflection on Jonas Valanciunas as a human being, I’d like to take a minute to share a couple of memories from interacting with Big Science.

In 2017, I covered my first Raptors game. I was nervously standing in the home locker room, trying to look like I belonged by doing whatever I saw the other journalists do. Some huddled and conversed, others twiddled their thumbs waiting for a player to come in or just observed what they could of their pregame habits. I went with the latter. With my back to the entrance, a player walked in and tapped me on the left shoulder and I looked over my right. “Damn it,” Valanciunas said. He tried to get me with the old shoulder trick and it didn’t work. When I made eye contact, he said I was new and was supposed to turn the other way. I was a rookie but that was an old trick, I explained. “Next time,” he said. He never got me, but for that night and the games and practices that followed, the intimidation factor usually associated with a seven-foot, 245-pound dude was gone.

Then came the Houston Rockets on March 9, 2018, a clash between two teams that were atop their respective conferences at the time. Back to the locker room we go, where Valanciunas came rolling through again. Koreen, Holly Mackenzie and I were chitchatting about something far too unsophisticated to remember now and he looked over at us as he sat at his locker and said, “Come here.”

Holly and I walked over. When we stood in front of him, he asked us to pick between his black Nike Air Max Dominate shoes and another pair of white Nikes I can’t quite remember. The Raptors were wearing their OVO Black uniforms, so we quickly decided the shoes should be black too. I took my seat in the media gondola next to Sean Woodley and Dan Reynolds of Raptors HQ and told them what happened. As you might remember, Valanciunas was at the line with the Raptors leading 106-105 and five seconds remaining, and Chris Paul barking at him to boot. Reynolds quickly looked over and said, “If he misses these, it’s on you.”

Thankfully, Valanciunas made both. It definitely wasn’t me. The Raptors won 108-105 and again — for completely non-journalistic reasons — I felt a little bit more like I belonged. Thank you for seven years, Jonas.

This is a season where winning matters much more than feelings, though, and it’s all business from here. The Raptors have 26 games to develop chemistry, another 19 days to fill out the roster with playoff-eligible players, and then swing for the fences in the most anticipated postseason in franchise history.

We’re about to see what all-in looks like.

GAME INFO

Time: 7:30 p.m. ET / 4:30 p.m. PT.
TV: TSN. Radio: Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

RAPTORS UPDATES

The Atlanta Hawks game was supposed to be a clean bill of health and everyone on the roster available for the first time this season since Nov. 2, and then the trade deadline happened and Leonard was ruled out with a sore left knee. Kawhi is expected to play this contest. The reported Malcolm Miller signing is not official yet but Blake Murphy of The Athletic reported that he was present at shootaround.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Jordan Loyd
SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw
SF: Kawhi Leonard, Norman Powell
PF: Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
C: MARC GASOL*, Serge Ibaka
TBD: Malcolm Miller

KNICKS UPDATES

Emmanuel Mudiay suffered a left shoulder strain on Jan. 25 and was ruled out for at least two weeks. Frank Ntilikina is still recovering from a strained groin and isn’t expected back until after the All-Star break. Smith Jr. can make like Russell Westbrook and do what he wants.

PG: Dennis Smith Jr.
SG: Damyean Dotson, Allonzo Trier, Kadeem Allen
SF: Kevin Knox, Lance Thomas, Mario Hezonja
PF: Noah Vonleh, Luke Kornet, Isaiah Hicks
C: DeAndre Jordan, Mitchell Robinson
OUT: Emmanuel Mudiay, Frank Ntilikina

THE LINE

The Raptors are 12-point favorites and the over/under is set at 217.5.

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