This year has been far from ordinary and as we enter the final night of 2020 the Raptors are hopeful to ring in the new year with some sense of normalcy.
A game this early in the season — four games to be exact — against the New York Knicks would usually not involve much worry. But this has been an unusual year to say the least, and the Raptors are off to an odd 0-3 start. It’s the first time the franchise has begun a season with three consecutive losses since 2005. What’s more, the Raptors have held double digit leads in all three games so far. For some fans, that’s reason to panic.
The Raptors are the only team in the last 20 seasons to start 0-3, blowing a double-digit lead in all 3 games.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 30, 2020
h/t @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/7TB88P9JQj
The Knicks on the other hand have won two games in a row for a 2-2 record that includes a 20-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks. One could almost say they’re riding high. Yet if there is a team against which the Raptors could snag their first win the 2020-21 campaign: it would be New York — a team that has lost eight consecutive games to the Raptors going back to 2017.
Still, for a year with a short preseason and some of the best teams struggling, no game will come easy. This is after all, the weird year of 2020, where the Raptors can’t seem to win a game — and they play in Tampa.
Here are tonight’s details.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet, 7:30 PM ET
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Aron Baynes
New York – Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
Toronto – Patrick McCaw (knee – day-to-day)
New York – Omari Spellman (knee – out), Dennis Smith (quadriceps – out), Austin Rivers (groin – questionable), Frank Ntilikina (knee – day-to-day), Immanuel Quickley (hip – questionable), Alec Burks (ankle – day-to-day), Obi Toppin (calf – out), Kevin Knox (knee - probable)
Early Bench Fireworks
Raptors coach Nick Nurse is still trying to find a spark off the bench. If that wasn’t made clear Tuesday night versus the Sixers when Stanley Johnson and Alex Len were the first two player off the pine after two games of Norman Powell, Matt Thomas, or Chris Boucher, it definitely is now.
To start games, Toronto’s starters have been reliable through three contests, posting a +15 prior to any substitution. Between the first guy off the bench stepping onto the court to the end of the first quarter the Raptors drop to a +5 margin. And things only begin to unravel from there. Through those first three games the Raptors have been outscored in two of their three second quarters, all three third quarters, and two of three fourth quarters (the third was a tie). Its tough to win games when you’re being outscored in 36 of the 48 minutes.
The goal for the Raptors’ first player off the bench is to supply a spark, or at least match the solid play of the starters. The Raptors’ opening momentum has to be carried on between the two units throughout the game no matter what lineup is on the floor. So who will get the nod tonight? And how will they carry themselves throughout the game?
Expect the Ball
There’s no other way to say it: the Raptors are often missing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, their frontcourt that most often knew what they were going to do with the ball. In Ibaka’s case, it was usually to shoot it; for Gasol, the shooting came and went, but he knew where he wanted it to go.
So far for the Raptors this season, Aron Baynes and Alex Len are still finding their footing in Toronto and Chris Boucher is adapting to his bigger role. Both Baynes and Boucher have scored double digits in two of three games but their play has varied. To use Tuesday night’s Sixers game as an example: when Lowry and VanVleet enter the paint, neither could quite find their centres on the roll or in the dunker’s spot. The chemistry just isn’t quite there yet. For Len, the Sixers game was his first appearance of the season, and it was sometimes obvious. He looked shocked a few times to find a pass come in his direction close to the basket. Unfortunately, that has also been the case with Baynes at times.
For a more efficient and consistent offense all three of Baynes, Boucher, and Len need to expect the ball and be ready to score. It’s vital that more points come from the four and five positions — and the bench — to take some pressure off of Lowry, VanVleet and Siakam.
The Knicks don’t have a lot of bodies available as seen from the injury report. The best attack when a team is to push the pace and get out into transition. For a team with one of the worst offenses in the league, as Toronto currently has, running is already a good idea — but doubly so here.
It’s worth noting that the Knicks’ scoring only comes from a select number of players. If the Raptors attack the trio of Randle, Barrett, and Payton on the defensive end, it will likely be a struggle on the offensive end. It could put the Knicks in a position to look for scoring from guys that aren’t used to it. Meanwhile, remember: the Raptors are near full strength (and just missing McCaw), so this game could help the bench gain confidence. If there’s anything the Raptors need right now, it’s that.