TORONTO — It was perhaps not the most compelling event to occur in the NBA cosmos Thursday. But despite the commotion that was whipped up across the league on its trade deadline day, the Toronto Raptors still had a game to play that evening against the New York Knicks. And although it lacked energy, intrigue, and consistently successful shooting, it counts in the standings all the same.
And for that reason alone, it’s important that the Raptors did what they should have, dispatching the Knicks, 113-88, in a game New York had absolutely no business winning. Jonas Valanciunas was key early with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, while the Raptors bench went off late, scoring 61 points and finishing a combined plus-93.
This is the type of game good teams like the Raptors must take from bad teams like the Knicks. These contests are certainly less fun to watch — and, likely, participate in — than Tuesday’s spirited romp over the conference-leading Boston Celtics. But if the Raptors hope to supplant those Celtics in first place (they do), gimme games like Thursday’s must be won.
Why’s that? Well, the Knicks came into the night almost satirically short-handed, with a procession of useful players unavailable due to a catalogue of reasons including season-ending injury (Kristaps Porzingis, Ron Baker), trade (Doug McDermott, Willy Hernangomez), receiving 30 in-mouth stitches (Enes Kanter), and forced exile due to verbally berating the head coach (Joakim Noah).
Of the Knicks players actually wearing shorts and jerseys Thursday, there was no lineup that had played together for more than 23 minutes this season (many of them likely within garbage time). Neither member of the starting frontcourt — Kyle O’Quinn and Michael Beasley, who combined for 10 starts coming into the night — was averaging more than 20 minutes played per game.
Lance Thomas, who had hit exactly three shots over his last six games, was the first man off the bench. The second — someone named Luke Kornet — was making his NBA debut. That’s the kind of night it was for the visitors.
Of course, to be fair, the Knicks are still an NBA team populated by NBA-calibre players, several of them rather capable of scoring prolifically, especially on a night like Thursday when the Raptors likely couldn’t help but look at their depleted opposition and enter the game with something less than crunch-time intensity.
One gets the sense Beasley’s been waiting for a game like this, when its justified that he throw up 20-plus field-goal attempts. Then there’s Courtney Lee, who’s quietly having the most productive season of his career. And Toronto fans may remember Tim Hardaway Jr.’s best game of the season — a 38-point, plus-16 effort this November — actually came against the Raptors.
And those Knicks, bless them, held things close early, keeping the Raptors within five points at the end of the first quarter. There was a lethargy to that opening stanza that you might expect from a game such as this. The Raptors didn’t shoot particularly well (33 per cent from the field) and didn’t protect their rim with much urgency either, letting the Knicks score nearly half their points from the paint.
But once Toronto’s much-acclaimed second unit checked in, the Raptors started to separate, pushing the lead to double-digits as Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam each went 3-of-3 with seven points off the bench in the second quarter.
“Our starters didn’t have a rhythm tonight,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “But the second unit’s playing the game the right way. They’re executing. Defensively, they’re getting after it. They’re assisting. They were moving the ball, zinging the ball. And making shots.”
Later in the frame, Valanciunas checked back in — after scoring a game-high eight in the first — and found plenty of room to work down low without Porzingis or Kanter around to get in his way. The Raptors were clearly trying to exploit that advantage and frequently fed the big man, who actually found his way to a pair of assists, finding open teammates thanks to the excess attention he was receiving in the paint.
Valanciunas led his team in scoring again in the third, picking up five of his 10 rebounds while he was at it. And the second unit returned to do what it does in the fourth, icing the game with one of its trademark high-energy runs. C.J. Miles played a big part in that, hitting a trio of three-pointers in the second half.
While that three-point shooting wasn’t there for the Raptors early, Toronto’s efficiency improved as the night went on, and the Raptors actually finished shooting 37 per cent from three (16-of-43, which includes an 0-of-5 run in garbage time) despite going 6-of-21 from distance in the first half.
“We got off to a slow start, we can’t put ourselves in that hole,” Casey said. “Some of the three-point shots that we had were good looks. Some of it is about rhythm. And the second unit came in and made theirs.”
Miles led the way in that regard, followed closely by Fred VanVleet who went 2-of-5 from beyond the arc. VanVleet was one of five Raptors bench players to finish with double-digits, and tied Siakam with a game-high six assists.
“You’ve got to keep working the game and eventually something will shake free,” VanVleet said. “Any time you go into the game thinking about blowing a team out, it’s not going to work for you. So, we just came in with a good approach and took care of things on the defensive end.
“I thought [New York] did a good job being really physical, and they kind of dictated that for a while. But we were able to shake free there and make some threes in the second half to pull away.”
An added benefit of that late bench run was Toronto’s starters got to take the entire fourth quarter off, a long-view benefit that has been occurring with more and more regularity of late.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan (it says something about how dominant the Raptors bench was that the two Raptors stars haven’t been mentioned in this story until now) each played less than 30 minutes for the fourth consecutive game. That can only pay dividends come playoff time.
“You appreciate it in the long run,” DeRozan said. “Because there will be moments in the season where we’re playing through a lot of things and really don’t have time to let things heal and get back to feeling as close to 100 per cent as possible. Games like this give us the opportunity to not nag any injuries — to be able to heal, be able to feel good. It’s beneficial.”
Of course, that’s how it always should have gone. If you want to be one of basketball’s best teams, which the Raptors very much do, these are the kind of games you have to insert into your back pocket swiftly and decisively. It’s not a good look to lose to an outfit in the state the Knicks were Thursday, let alone win narrowly.
If you’re serious about your business, you swarm a vulnerable team like that early, put the game out of reach by the third quarter, and let your young bench players carry it home over the final 12 minutes while your starters rest up.
That’s not exactly how it went down, but Toronto was close enough, taking care of business on a day of upheaval across the league. Another win up on the board, as the Raptors continue their pursuit of something much greater.