Raptors unable to keep up with Knicks as international players play prominent role

International basketball was well represented at Scotiabank Arena on Friday night, where the outlook was very global anyway given the Toronto Raptors celebrated the 20th anniversary of Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s Giants of Africa foundation and its outward-looking mission.

On the floor, for the Raptors you had point guard Dennis Schroder who led Germany to their first-ever gold medal at the FIBA Basketball World Cup and earned MVP honours along the way, while the New York Knicks had Canadian star RJ Barrett and Team USA standout Jalen Brunson in the starting lineup. All three of them were in the ‘Final Four’ this past summer in Manilla, Philippines.

They were all to various degrees prominent in what ended up being a 119-106 win for the visiting Knicks who took over what was a tied game at halftime thanks to a floor-spreading storm of three-pointers that would have been pleasing to the eye of any international hoops fan.

Raptors fans ended up streaming for the exit as their space-deprived offence continued to struggle to keep pace and do much of anything against another quality defensive team and the Knicks in this case arriving with the NBA’s fourth-rated defence.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely fair. The Raptors did have 32 assists and just 12 turnovers, both very good numbers for them. They out-rebounded the Knicks – one of the better rebounding teams in the league – and had 19 offensive rebounds to 11 for New York. They blocked six shots, had seven steals and toon 10 more field goal attempts.

But the 29th-ranked team by three-point shooting accuracy in a 30-team league played that part in form and that was the difference. Toronto shot a miserable – and frankly difficult to replicate – six-of-32 from the three-point line. Scottie Barnes was 3-of-7 on his way to a team-high 29 points (on 13-of-19 shooting to go along with nine rebounds, four assists and five steals) but the rest of the team – well you can do the math.

The Knicks meanwhile shot 10-of-18 from deep in the second half alone and were good on six of their nine attempts in the fourth quarter before Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic raised the white flag with two minutes to play.

“I think over the game in general they made a lot of threes and we didn’t shoot it very well tonight. I think that was the biggest difference,” said Raptors centre Jakob Poeltl, who was a bright spot with 12 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots in 27 minutes. “We didn’t play with 100 per cent energy. I feel like it wasn’t a bad game in general. I feel like we created good shots. We just weren’t making them and that fuels their offence, fuels their confidence, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”

The Knicks are one of the deepest teams in the NBA and it was their ninth man, Dante DiVincenzo, who hit four threes on his own in the fourth quarter to blow the game open. His final triple put the Knicks up by 16 and the game well out of reach. The Raptors bench was outscored by their Knicks counterparts 52-25.

Fittingly DiVincenzo’s last three were set up by Knicks point guard Brunson who finished with 22 points and eight assists – a fairly quiet night for him in what will almost certainly be an all-star season. Schroder had nine assists of his own while Barrett had 15 points and six assists on the floor the Mississauga resident came to watch the Raptors so often as a youth.

That Schroder, Barrett, and Brunson were each factors – to varying degrees — was no surprise. They are all off to starts to their individual seasons that are better than might have been expected based on their career averages.

It’s true around the league also, at least for the Canadian national team.  Barrett’s Canadian teammates Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dillon Brooks and Lu Dort have all started the season flying. Coincidence?

Maybe not.

“What it does is, I think, is it gives them a head start on the season because they come in at game speed already,” said Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has been an assistant with Team USA in the past. “… Everyone else is more or less, they’re building up to get there. So I do think there’s great benefit from it. …

“When I was in Chicago, Derrick Rose, come off the World Cup, hit the ground running and won the MVP that year [2011], so I think players get confidence and I think the big thing for young players is to develop consistency and I think that’s what [international basketball] does: it allows them to get confident and then they come into the season and away they go.”

There is a lot of concern in the NBA about how much basketball professional basketball players play.

The league wants its stars to play as much as possible but has acknowledged that an 82-game season is a lot for any athlete to manage and has made significant strides in recent years to reduce the rigours of travel and limit the number of times in a year the schedule simply saps the life out of teams and players.

Players generally want to play as much as possible, but with the amount of money on the line and the growing awareness around the importance of rest and recovery for high performance and injury prevention, they tend to be more cautious about things now, and teams typically support them. The days of playing through lingering injuries are largely over. Last season just four players started 80 games or more. Ten years ago it was 29 and twenty years ago it was 38.

Along those same lines, getting NBA players to commit to summer seasons with their national teams has often been a hit or miss. It’s a big ask for athletes who compete six months of the year or more and train most of the year after that.

But it turns out playing a lot of basketball can be really good for basketball players.

Barrett is off to the best start of his five-year career after helping Canada to a best-ever bronze medal at the World Cup. He arrived to play in front of friends and family in Toronto shooting a career-best 40.9 per cent from the three-point line and 84.4 per cent from the foul line thanks to a noticeably smoothed-out shooting stroke. He’s averaging 23 points per/36 minutes for a very good Knicks team, up from 20.8 a season ago.

He got off to a fantastic start against his hometown Raptors, hitting on a nifty floater to start and splashing a three shortly after on his way to 13 first-half points. His three-point stroke didn’t follow him north – he was 1-of-6 from three – but he’s earned the trust and respect of his head coach.

“Each summer he’s come back to New York having developed further,” said Thibodeau. “I thought he played really well for Canada, and I think the mental part, the confidence he gained I think that helped him like get off to a fast start … he’s rolling pretty good and the consistency in the shot is vastly improved. That goes with a lot of work into it. But I think those experiences are great. I think he got a lot out of it.

Far from tiring him out, Barrett’s national experience energized him.

“I was in rhythm as soon as the season started,” he told me. “It was cool. I enjoyed not having that adjustment period throughout the beginning of the season where you come in and you’re not used to playing games because you haven’t played in months. It’s amazing.”

For the Raptors, having Schroder lead Germany to a World Cup gold medal has proven a boon. The 11-year veteran has been a nice find in free agency for the Raptors after Fred VanVleet left for Houston. Schroder is having one of the best seasons of his career to this point. He’s sitting on a career high in assists (6.9) per game while his 16.2 points per game is his highest average since 2017-18.

He’s played every season he can for Germany. Next summer at the Olympics will be his third in a row.

“I think it’s always great when you play national team,” said Schroder. “It’s a different type of energy and competition … but people in the summer are looking for open gyms to play and there’s no better competition than the national team, especially when you play World Cup or European championships, I think it helps all of us. [Normally] you take a month off and then you do your workouts and open gyms anyway. You might as well play structured basketball then you know, walk it up, shoot threes and not really play any defence and it helps your conditioning. When I came here I was already in shape, ready to play.”

“Not playing basketball from April or May till October? That’s way too long for me.”

The way the Raptors have struggled at times this year – especially against the stronger teams in the Eastern Conference – suggests the October-to-May portion of the year might feel long this year too.