Raptors stave off Knicks, inconsistencies to win last game before decisive roadtrip

The Toronto Raptors won’t be around these parts for a while, and who knows what parts of the team will still be in uniform by the time they get back to Scotiabank Arena on the eve of the NBA trade deadline.

But this version at least gave the home crowd something to remember them by: a 48-minute display of plenty of the things they do best and just enough of their season-high foibles to keep things interesting.

For the first time in three games, it added up to a win, 125-116 over the visiting New York Knicks in a game where the Raptors’ defence was at times excellent, at others suddenly absent, but on the whole active and disruptive enough to make for a difficult afternoon for the visitors. The Raptors were able to couple that with enough shot-making to make it pay off and Toronto was able to split their rare home back-to-back before heading out for their season-high seven-game road trip on Tuesday.

The Raptors nailed the win down with a convincing fourth-quarter effort in which they broke open a tie game with a 13-2 run to start the final period. It was punctuated by a perfect full-court touchdown pass from Scottie Barnes that hit Gary Trent Jr. in stride for a dunk that put Toronto up 11 with 8:50 to play.

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The Knicks wouldn’t quite go away, but a triple from Fred VanVleet with just over a minute left put Toronto up 11 and the game safely away.

It was VanVleet’s only shot of the quarter as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse relied on a bench-heavy lineup anchored by Scottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. for the first nine minutes of the period.

“I think that was a long stretch for those guys and I think they were working really hard,” said Nurse. “We were playing zone for most of the quarter, but they were really working hard to figure out all the different formations that were coming at them. They did a great job on the glass at both ends. Lots of offensive rebounds, no offensive rebounds for them.

“And then I thought they were in a really good groove. Gary (Trent Jr.) was providing offence, Scottie (Barnes) was providing offence as those two guys should. Chris (Boucher) and Precious (Achiuwa) were cleaning up any misses. It was a heck of a long stretch for those guys.”

The win improved Toronto to 21-26 on the season and into a tie with Washington for 11th place — 1.5 games behind Chicago for 10th place and the final play-in position. The Knicks fell to 25-23 and 1-3 against Toronto this season.

The Raptors were led by VanVleet’s 26 points, while Trent Jr. added 24 (6-of-10 from three) and Pascal Siakam finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Barnes had 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists while Precious Achiuwa had 12 points and 11 rebounds in his second start — this time in place of O.G. Anunoby (ankle) — while Chris Boucher added 14 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Toronto forced the Knicks into 17 turnovers for 26 points while the Raptors shot 15-of-41 from deep.

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The Knicks were led by Mississauga’s RJ Barrett, who led all scorers with 30. New York shot 48.8 per cent from the floor and 18-of-41 from three.

The Raptors played superb defence to start, then were a little suspect in the middle frames — giving up 31 and 33 points — but were just good enough in the fourth, holding the Knicks to 30 but helping their own cause by forcing four more turnovers. Playing complete games hasn’t been a feature of the Raptors bumpy season, but for one night their very good moments outweighed their not-so-bad.

Toronto played their best quarter of defence in quite some time against the Knicks, who arrived in Toronto Friday night and had a chance to rest their legs Saturday while the Raptors were hosting the Knicks. But the Raptors were the more energized team and it showed defensively in particular.

“I thought we were just sharp and assertive,” said VanVleet. “Our first quarter was our best defensive quarter obviously … but I thought we just came out with a good focus and intensity. We gotta find ways to increase that consistently throughout the game, but for the most part, I thought we were pretty sharp and pretty together tonight.”

Even without Anunoby, the Raptors were — collectively — committed to keeping the ball in front of them at the point of attack, rotating hard when there was a breakdown and swarming the ball in numbers. The Raptors turned four first-quarter steals into six points and it would have been eight had Gary Trent Jr. not blown a wide-open lay-up off his own steal in the early going.

But the Raptors shooting guard made up for it by catching fire from deep early. He hit the first three triples he looked at and finished the quarter with nine points. Perhaps it was contagious, as VanVleet hit a pair of threes while Barnes (19 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Siakam hit one each as Toronto went 7-of-11 from beyond the arc and 61 per cent overall in the opening period.

That shooting combined with the seven turnovers Toronto forced and the 33 per cent shooting they held the Knicks to led to the Raptors enjoying a 37-22 lead after 12 minutes in one of their most complete quarters of basketball in some time. 

The Raptors were in a solid enough position that head coach Nick Nurse felt comfortable rolling out one the most unexpected lineups of the season: 10-day signee Joe Wieskamp, making his second ever Raptors appearance; two-way signee Jeff Dowtin Jr., getting his first meaningful minutes of 2023, along with Chris Boucher, Precious Achiuwa and Pascal Siakam.

Since there was no guarantee that the fivesome even knew each other’s names — they certainly hadn’t played together before — it wasn’t seamless, as one might expect. The five-man group went 3-of-11 from the floor with two turnovers and gave up a 14-7 run in the first 5:30 of the second quarter before Nurse called timeout and began filtering his starters back in.

That stabilized things, but the Knicks seemed to pick up some confidence from that early spurt. In particular, Obi Toppin caught fire and hit four threes in five attempts off the bench for the Knicks. They closed the gap to five when Julius Randle hit New York’s sixth triple of the period before the Raptors pushed their lead back to nine and took a 62-53 lead into half.

But the fact that the Knicks shot 11-of-19 (and 6-of-12 from deep) for the second quarter after Toronto stifled them completely in the first is part of what has made this Raptors team so hard to figure out at times. When healthy and locked in as they were in the first they turn teams inside out — even with Anunoby sidelined, although Achiuwa can pick up a lot of that slack. But then the lineup shifts a little bit and the rope slips through their hands.

“The defence has fallen back. We’ve been talking about that around here quite a bit,” said Nurse before the game. “There’s a lot of areas that need shoring up. The list is long. We’re getting through it. But we expect to get through it. There’s a lot of basketball to be played yet. The guys in that room can play it.”

The Knicks can play some defence too. They came into the game ranked 11th in defensive efficiency (the Raptors are 19th) and began to turn the screws a little bit in the third quarter. They held Toronto to 33 per cent shooting in the third quarter and were able to use their team size advantage to force Toronto into a number of difficult shots, no more than VanVleet, who was 2-of-9 in the period.

Toronto was up nine with 3:33 left in the third when the Knicks uncorked a 10-0 run punctuated by a Jalen Brunson three, giving the Knicks their first lead of the game with 1:23 left before the two teams started the fourth quarter tied 86-86.

The Raptors now get to take their mixed-up, uneven, unpredictable show on the road as they head west for seven games. They won’t have a home game for 17 days, or until the night before the Feb. 9th trade deadline. Who knows what they’ll look like then?

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