It doesn’t take a lot to beat the woeful New York Knicks. Toronto has so much talent, and such a high ceiling to their performances, that they can play down to their opponents without much danger of upsets. They’re so good defensively, with so many gears at their disposal, that even a few minutes of effort can win a game even against a solid team. And the New York Knicks are not a solid team.
The New York Knicks are not a particularly interesting team, either. As usual, Nick Nurse had a pre-game media availability, this one lasting over 11 minutes. He was asked a variety of questions, of course. Not one, however, pertained to the actual New York Knicks. There were a few questions about a Knicks player, RJ Barrett, and his declaration earlier in the morning that he would be available to play for Team Canada in its quest to qualify for the Olympics. But there weren’t any questions about the actual Knicks.
That’s fair. They have a bunch of tall players, and they play them all together at the same time for some reason, even though it makes for some bad, unattractive basketball. They pretend that Julius Randle is a go-to star, though he does not have the talent to back up his usage. Mitchell Robinson tries to dunk everything. Maybe Barrett will end up a star. Those few delightful anecdotes aside, the Knicks are the equivalent of a high-schooler’s patchy first attempt at a beard.
Because of the Knicks’ size and lack of perimeter talent, Toronto packed the paint on the defensive end. Towards the start of the game Frank Ntilikina hit a 3, Randle hit a 3, and the Raptors collectively shrugged their shoulders. The defensive game-plan was to take up space near the rim, and that’s exactly what the Raptors did. Over the course of the game, New York launched 41 triples, almost a half of their field goal attempts, yet they only connected on 12. The Raptors bet that a bad-shooting team wouldn’t hit shots, and they didn’t, even though many of their looks were good ones.
Barrett hit another 3 later in the first quarter, and Randle actually connected on another contested one, and the Raptors found themselves trailing by double digits early. It didn’t matter. Toronto knew their game-plan would work over the long term, even if the Knicks got hot for a short stretch. The Raptors turned on the jets early in the second quarter, got some stops, ran in transition, and immediately built a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Toronto’s starters put maximum effort into maybe three possessions of the game. Maybe. That was more than they needed.
New York tried some funky stuff to stop Toronto. They played plenty of zone, even though at times Toronto stepped into open jumpers off of a solitary pass to the strong side. New York’s zone, on some possessions, was about the least intimidating defense I’ve seen at the NBA level. They did more to mix it up. The Knicks played some full-court press. Toronto countered by running some zone of its own, and New York really struggled to score at all. During the middle quarters, there was about as much zone defense played as an NBA game can hold.
In the end, Pascal Siakam was the difference. He scored easily, as the Knicks have no defender remotely capable of bothering his shot. Even when Siakam was missing bunnies early, it was clear that if he kept gunning, he’d score huge numbers. And he did. He ended up shooting 12-for-22, scoring 31, and he did it all in three quarters.
“Tonight, he saw a lot of space and he took it at times, and he’d jab-step and pull back a few times early [for jump-shots], and I love it,” said Nick Nurse. “I think he’s ultra-aggressive. Lot of catch and shoot threes, which I love. Those are easy possessions, he doesn’t have to get pounded on or make three spin moves to get a shot up or anything. It’s nice that he gets to come down and take some of those.”
Siakam didn’t have to work too hard for his points.
Perhaps the best part of the game was garbage time. Malcolm Miller exploded, hitting four triples. His form is gorgeous. Shamorie Ponds played in his first NBA game and scored his first NBA points. Chris Boucher recorded a double-double. It was fun all around.
With Boucher and Oshae Brissett for Toronto and Barrett and Ignas Brazdeikis for New York, this game featured four Canadian players. That is — without actually checking the records — likely the most that have ever played together in an NBA game. Coming on the eve of the announcement that many national stars will play for team Canada, Barrett included, perhaps the CanCon is the most notable aspect of an otherwise noncompetitive game.
We know the Raptors are a championship caliber team. They proved that against the Sixers. We know they can play incredible defense, and Siakam did that and more against the Sixers. The Sixers, however, were a good opponent, and the Knicks were not. Toronto put in exactly as much effort as the game required, and they got their win by a massive margin. Some blow-outs aren’t inspiring. Let the Knicks serve as a reminder of what the Raptors used to be, and the massacre a reminder of what the Raptors are.