Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 120-103 loss to the New York Knicks.
One — Impressed: Confidence explains so much in sports. The Knicks had largely the same roster last season, they were a guaranteed win on the calendar, and now they're a live buzzsaw who have ripped off nine wins in a row. The difference more than anything else is confidence, and confidence was in every move the Knicks made. They shot every shot with confidence, attacked patiently, got the ball to their would-be stars, and those stars reaffirmed their confidence by making every difficult shot in every difficult moment. On paper, you could say the Knicks shouldn't be this good, but the Raptors gave them everything they had through three quarters and were still down. That's what confidence will bring you.
Two — Relentless: You rarely see any one star player hurt the Raptors because they simply don't allow it. Even if it takes sending a second defender across the floor to double team without any fear of giving up another open shot, the Raptors will do it. And yet Julius Randle torched the Raptors, setting fire to their defense with a smattering of increasingly more difficult looks. Randle found his confidence early with some semi-open jumpers, and he just took off. OG Anunoby is one of the best individual defenders in the league, and yet Randle was just shooting over him like he was a beefy left-handed Kevin Durant. The Raptors' defense is tilted so heavily against stars, yet Randle broke the scheme by shooting through it.
Three — Improved: The Raptors did a better job on Randle in the second half. All you can really do against a star who is that hot is to deny him the ball, and the Raptors worked their hardest to cut off passes. Anunoby picked off a few passes, the Raptors switched more often, and Randle wasn't as much of a threat in the second half outside of being fouled on a three. But that's where the Knicks' secondary players picked up the slack. RJ Barrett was sensational in both knocking down threes on kickouts, or attacking the paint to get himself to the line. Derrick Rose also had his moments, even though his shots were mostly contested. The Knicks' effort stayed high throughout, whereas the Raptors burnt out.
Four — Shocking: For all of Randle's improbable shot-making, and Barrett's heroics at the end, the difference in this game really came down to the bench. The second unit for the Raptors was thoroughly beaten by their Knicks counterparts, almost to an embarrassing degree. Offensively, the Raptors' starters played with great ball movement and were able to generate open looks, but that all went away in the second unit, where the ball mostly stuck in Gary Trent Jr.'s hands as he looked to force up another contested jumper. But the bigger issue was on defense, where the Raptors allowed the Knicks to beat them one-on-one. 35-year-old Taj Gibson schooled Raptors rookie Freddie Gillespie with a spin move, Yuta Watanabe got beat twice on line drives from Barrett, and it didn't help that Obi Toppin splashed three triples despite being a 27-percent shooter on the season. The difference in bench scoring was 45-11.
Five — Absence: This is one of those games where you do miss Chris Boucher, who is out for at least a week after suffering a knee injury. Boucher can also be hit or miss, but when he's on there is a game-changing quality about his style of play. Boucher is an aggressive offensive player who is also disruptive on defense, and he knows his role with the second unit better than anyone else in that lineup. The contrast in style between Boucher and Watanabe, who took his reserve minutes, could not be more stark as two players. Boucher's absence put even more of a strain on Trent Jr. to score, and it spiralled from there.
Six — Efficient: Anunoby was great on both ends, even if Randle's statline suggests otherwise. Anunoby continues to find his spots and take his chances within the flow of the offense, which makes his scoring outputs even more impressive. It's similar to Norman Powell, in that Anunoby looks entirely comfortable in where the shots are coming from, he's working off the ball to get open, and he's making them with confidence. Defenses are so keyed in on the Raptors' three main playmakers which makes it easy for someone like Anunoby to find his spots and get his looks. And in the few moments where Anunoby does have to create, he strikes the right balance between being aggressive and forcing it.
Seven — Excited: Fred VanVleet led the way in this game and was great throughout. VanVleet had been struggling with his shot in the two games since suffering a hip injury, but he shook that off with an efficient 27 points on 50 percent shooting, to go along with 11 assists without a turnover. VanVleet kept the Raptors close in the first half, bravely getting to the rim despite the Knicks being stacked with shot-blockers, and he nailed back-to-back transition threes to erase the mess made in the first shift for the Raptors' bench. VanVleet cooled off in the second half, but still chipped in late with a sidestep three to trim the lead to eight points with four minutes left.
Eight — Tough: Oddly enough, the Raptors had some of their best success with smaller defenders on Randle as opposed to Anunoby or Siakam. VanVleet found himself matched up with Randle in zone coverages or on switches, and VanVleet did a great job of keeping Randle in front and getting to be off-balance on his jumpers. Similarly, it was Kyle Lowry who stepped in for a charge against Randle on a drive in the fourth quarter. This is why the criticisms of the Raptors' backcourt being undersized falls short of insight beyond stating the obvious. VanVleet and Lowry concede nothing defensively.
Nine — Quiet: The return of Lowry and VanVleet was always going to eat into Malachi Flynn's minutes. Flynn only got six minutes in the first half, which was far too few to make any meaningful impression, and Nurse benched him altogether in the second half. That's more of a reflection of roster makeup than it is of Flynn as a player, because he's just not as good as the two point guards ahead of him. If Flynn were to find his way back into more of a prominent role, it would need to be through improving his off-ball skills like relocating and being more efficient on catch-and-shoot threes. Flynn doesn't quite know how to impact the game offensively without the ball yet, so it leaves to his minutes being shortened.
Ten — Test: The make-or-break stretch of the season is coming on the road trip through Denver, Utah, and Los Angeles starting next week. If the Raptors want to get into the playoffs, they need to beat some of the best playoff teams just to sneak into the play-in tournament. If they can consistently produce efforts like they showed in the first three quarters of this game, then the Raptors should be able to come out even. The center position is much improved, and the starters who missed time due to COVID-19 seem to be back in full condition. All season the Raptors haven't been given a fair shot due to circumstances, but they're mostly healthy now, and their fate is in their own hands.
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