The New York Knicks are not going to make the playoffs, after a disappointing season for Carmelo Anthony and his lacklustre cohorts. As they march towards another summer of roster changes and hopeful draft picks, individual wins and losses have stopped mattering nearly as much as they did in November.
The Knicks need to focus on development and growth right now, which means seeing improvements from the surprisingly polished Kristaps Porzingis and allowing opportunities for fringe players to thrive. Porzingis has missed the last five games with an ailing shoulder, but has not been ruled out for tonight.
For the Raptors, winning is also starting to matter less. Of course athletes always want to play well and beat their equally competitive opponents, but the Eastern Conference standings are basically fixed. The Raptors are 2.5 games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers with three games left, meaning that they will almost certainly end up with the second seed. And, they have already tackled the franchise record for wins in a season, easily moving past the old mark of 50.
Still, these are professionals, and tonight they have to go to work. The best way to look at this game for the Raptors is a playoff tuneup. The team will enter the postseason with a ton of weight on their shoulders, burdened by expectations from failures in each of the last two years. This game against a weaker opponent is a chance to try out some things they might have to use against a juggernaut like the Cavaliers. Or, it's just a chance to stay consistent and effective as legs get more tired.
Here are some things to watch out for in tonight's game:
Getting the Boys Back
In their last game against the Indiana Pacers, the Raptors won on the back of some unusual heroes. Rookies Norman Powell and Delon Wright were excellent, pacing the team in scoring. The Raptors needed all of their combined 46 points because DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola and DeMarre Carroll all sat out.
Tonight, with the potential exception of Scola, the regular starters should be back. Resting starters down the stretch of a long season is an imperative strategy for playoff-bound teams, but you also don't want to overdo it. The Raptors need Lowry and DeRozan at their best to compete in a seven-game series, which means they have to be physically able to play hard. But, they also have to be mentally confident, which comes from having successful games leading up to the big show.
Look for head coach Dwane Casey to balance working his starters back in with seeing what else he can get from his rookies. The Raptors could be very dangerous if DeRozan, Lowry, Powell and Wright all play at their best at the same time.
Winning on the Road
The Raptors are a road win away from breaking the franchise record of 22, matched in each of the team's last two seasons. The team won 122-95 in their only trip to New York this season, edging the Knicks easily. If the Raptors could do the same tonight, it could spark a major burst of confidence going into the playoffs.
The Knicks are 18-22 at home this year, which means they don't exactly scare opposing squads, but they also don't give up too easily. When this team wants to, it can really play. Anthony is still an elite scorer with the potential to go off on any night. He came to New York partly because he wanted to play in front of the ruckus fans. Occasionally, he gives them what the Knicks' front office paid for.
Winning with DeMarre Caroll
While the Raptors could likely triumph in tonight's matchup without Carroll, his lasting success on the team team is pivotal for the whole unit's chances of winning big during the playoffs. Carroll missed most of the season due to injury, but he is now back and ready to offer the defensive services and offensive versatility he demonstrated in Atlanta.
Tonight, if Carroll gets the nod to play, he will pair up against Anthony, who is a real test. Anthony can shoot from just about anywhere, and he is strong enough to grind his way to the hoop with relative ease. But, Carroll, at his best, is one of the best wing stoppers in the league. If he can neutralize Anthony, the Raptors would almost certainly win. And, if he can neutralize Anthony tonight, he would likely be able to do it against weaker players in the playoffs.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7:30 p.m. ET.