Kyle’s Return and Khem’s Debut Not Enough to Nullify the Knicks

Forgive me if you've heard this one before. Raptors lose, again, on the second half of a back-to-back.

13 mins read
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

They say [they being smart philosopher-types] that opposing forces maintain the world’s (and basketball’s) balance.

Fire and water. Darkness and light. Great shooting and lazy defence. Etc.

Confucius claims that it is, “the interplay of opposite principles [that] constitutes the universe.”

Indeed, for the Raptors such wisdom bodes true.

Crushing defeats, smashing victories. Monstrous quarters, pathetic halves. Individual bests and worsts. This past month and a half has been one of extremes.

Last night’s game being no different with the binary forces of Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry battling for supremacy.

For Pascal, it was another tired, uninspiring game of basketball. It didn’t help that he missed a couple of gimmes and some wide-open shots early, but Tom Thibodeau’s fourth-ranked defence was ready for him. Early attacks were thwarted by the agile brick wall of Julius Randle and a disciplined support group. When Pascal did find room or draw a help defender, his passes were late or never came. This has become a constant with Pascal. That when things aren’t going for him, he lacks the wisdom of choosing when, where, and how to attack. Instead, as was apparent in this game, he proceeded without nuance. He ended the half 1/11 with three turnovers.

His early offensive failure translated to unfocused defence. He was neither effective slowing down Randle who had 18 in the first half or in helping on the weakside – finding himself in no-man’s land often, failing to stop both the penetration and his own man.

Again, Pascal is not entirely to blame. He looked tired, even after a day of rest. Nurse has been riding him hard these last few weeks after his COVID experience and the accumulation of that exhaustion has manifested. It doesn’t look like the type of tired that one day’s rest resolves, but the bone-deep kind that takes many days of legitimate rest to expel.

At the same time, as a basketball professional, Pascal has to recognize when he’s off and adapt his game accordingly. Just like Kyle Lowry.

If you had awakened from a coma and I told you – not sure why I am there or why it’s the first thing I feel the need to tell you but whatever – that this was Kyle’s first game back in six games you’d think I was lying and ask your nurse for a basketballreference.com printout. He looked that good! His absence and subsequent return also made me forget how glad I am to have him still wearing a Raptors uniform instead of me having to half-heartedly cheer for the Lakers or 76ers.

He is the planetary force that pulls the moons into alignment or the rope that keeps a drifting boat in harbour. When all else in a game is flat, there’s Kyle decidedly taking control. No one was shooting well in the first quarter, Kyle included. When the Knicks got out to a quick 6-0 run, Kyle did a CLASSIC Kyle move attacking a moving defender’s shoulder and rising up into the shot forcing the Refs to make the call. Boom. Two free throws to get the boys going.

In the second quarter, there was more vintage Kyle to be had. He drew two more shooting fouls. Had a one-dribble, side-step to the left, three-pointer and hit a pivot fadeaway in the paint. By the end of the first half, Lowry scored 1/3 (14) of the Raps’ forty-two points and had four assists. He’d warded off Pascal’s momentary gloom.

A silver-lining to the Raptors’ recent injury blight is the opportunity for other players to find themselves. Toronto’s bench has been non-existent virtually all year. When called upon, guys have looked lost and tentative. Tonight, though, you saw the culmination of repetition and experience.

Yuta and Flynn, especially, stepped onto the court seamlessly. Yuta had two threes in the second quarter both of which he launched with zero hesitation. He narrowly had a third on a bit of a heat check. Flynn did not perform like he has the past couple of games, but he earned Nick Nurse’s trust to play the entirety of the fourth quarter. His on-ball defence continues to be Freddy VanVleet-esque: pesky and relentless. And, offensively, his ability to make – for the most part – the right decisions in pick and rolls and down-hill attacks gives Kyle Lowry the much-needed rest and/or ability to play off-ball. The triad of Kyle, Flynn, and FVV are going to exhaust a lot of NBA back courts one day.

For the new bigs, Freddy Gillespie and Khem Birch, it was just really nice to see some mobile man-beef in the middle. They collectively only had six rebounds among them, but they clogged the lane more adeptly than any “big” the Raptors have used this season.

Once Boucher was bumped to the four-spot, NYK penetration slowed. Khem’s helpside, especially, stifled several drives while in switches he was able to step out and at least make things difficult on the perimeter – something Aron Baynes and his iron-gilded hips could not do. Speaking of, it wasn’t until the middle of the third quarter when I realized, Hey! No Baynes. How comforting.

In the second half, Pascal finally came alive. As much as fatigue may have played a role, it also seems to be Pascal’s need for external motivation that dictates his energy. He’s the temperamental type, affected by his own successes and failures – unlike Kyle who’s unfazed by whatever’s going on. You can tangibly feel the ebb and flow of Pascal’s confidence. It’s cyclical. He gets a bucket, his defence perks up, he gets a stop, he’s more enthused on offence, and so on.

He led the way in the third quarter scoring or assisting on fifteen of their thirty-four points in the quarter. While Kyle was quiet offensively, he was doing his commanding at the other end. The Raps played several possessions of zone. Early, RJ Barrett was getting high-post entries on the weakside and splitting the zone apart. Kyle recognized it and started matching up with him, bodying him through the lane while at the same time telling Flynn to cover and then barking at GTJ to fill in for Flynn. It was the kind of magical generalship that makes Kyle one of the NBA’s best leaders of all-time.

The whole of the Raptors jived in the third quarter. You gotta wonder if that rain delay gave them the much needed vegetating-time before the rest of the game unfolded.

GTJ also finally got going. Early in the game it looked like he might still be on NBA Jam-fire, but then he cooled a bit. Come the third, though, he was back to hitting all of the shots that has made Raptors Twitter proclaim, prematurely, that the GTJ-Normy trade was a steal. But I get it. Gary gets buckets that no other Raptor gets. His methodical probes into pull-ups and fade-aways are becoming a constant – a consequence of brimming confidence.

It’s what we all wish for Pascal and OG to one day be able to do. If FVV had his size, you’d see a lot more of that from him. It is why GTJ could be so special; his dynamism fills a very particular void in the Raptors offence. When he’s clicking – apparently, as this is the first time we’ve seen him clicking – he has the range to pull anywhere with any amount of pressure. Which he demonstrated very clearly in that third quarter (we’ll ignore that missed jumper late in the fourth). Then he does stuff like this where you really know he’s feeling it.

The fourth quarter returned to the way New York likes to boogie. It was that awful, swampy slog that gives Tom Thibodeau much glee. Their defence replugged the Raptors flow forcing seven turnovers and holding the Raps to just twenty points.

But with the game still up in the air, it was the two opposing forces of Kyle’s prowess and Siakam’s inconsistency that re-emerged.

First it was Kyle, with a minute left, slyly doubling Randle and poking the ball out of his hands to force a turnover.

Then Kyle with his big-booty attack sealing Randle off and laying it in to bring the game within one.

Then, Kyle again(!), with an interception – hold that thought.

Meanwhile, Pascal makes another defensive error on the helpside, dropping late to help Flynn on a Julius Randle drive. Randle feels it and kicks to RJ who nails a soul-sucking three-pointer.

Siakam redeemed his miscue by flying back down and scoring a quick two. But the supreme mistake of the game was the following play. Lowry intercepts the ball, sends it up to Pascal who instead of aggressively attacking, looks to pass to GTJ. Reggie Bullock recovers forcing Pascal to rethink his decision and double-dribble. Game over.

Kyle’s return and a spunky bench is a sign of what may come: that with rest and a full roster, balance will once again find the Toronto Raptors.

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