It hasn’t been easy, trying to dissect the first two weeks of Raptors basketball, trying to figure out why the team was 0-3.
There were a few main areas of concern — blowing double-digit leads in each game, grinding in their half court offence, missing a late-game shot maker. None of this was ever going to get solved in one game, but on a night that started off strange, Toronto at least broke their spell of losses to earn win number one.
A tidy 100-83 margin over the Knicks might look nice too, but this game was difficult to watch through long stretches. Both teams struggled to make inroads and build a lead until the fourth quarter, when the Raptors finally got two good minutes — sparked by none other than Kyle Lowry — to give them enough breathing room.
BONJOUR! pic.twitter.com/lgxmQLi4Y1— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 1, 2021
New York didn’t do themselves any favours either. Coming in 2-2 and one of the surprises of the young season, the Knicks managed to shoot just 3-for-35 (!!) from three on Thursday — shooting themselves in the foot before they really had a chance. RJ Barrett, Elfrid Payton, and Reggie Bullock alone went 0-for-19 from distance.
Leading the way for the Raptors was Fred VanVleet, who scored 25 points on 19 shots to lead everyone. Lowry had 20 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, while Norman Powell — a few gaffes aside — had his best outing through four games, scoring 17 points, including seven of the team’s first ten in the game. Powell was a game-high +28 as a starter, earning that spot after the team decided to bench Pascal Siakam for a game for disciplinary reasons, following his walk-out after fouling out in Philadelphia.
That news came down late, after Nick Nurse’s availability, and seemed to put a shroud over the game before the start. A few minutes of trade rumours were followed by the real news, which still stung a bit considering Siakam’s place on the team. (Would the team have done the same to Lowry if he had the same incident? Was this more about sending a message to their young star?)
The basketball early in the game did nothing to brighten the mood. While the Knicks started 1-for-10, a bevy of odd Nurse lineups didn’t allow the Raptors any momentum. Stanley Johnson was once again called upon early off the bench, playing against Julius Randle for some time. Randle was relatively quiet all things considered, scoring 16 points and grabbing ten rebounds. Other early Raptors off the bench included Terence Davis and Yuta Watanabe, who both got into a first quarter where the Raptors were up 14-4, but ended up winning just 22-18.
Low scoring was the story of the rest of the game, really, as both teams held each other under 30 points in all four quarters. The Raptors eventually were able to get enough of a spark from those vaunted Lowry plus bench lineups, including a third quarter stretch that saw Alex Len hit two much-needed corner threes.
Big fella got range pic.twitter.com/SU7BNJqGu3— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 1, 2021
Then, in the fourth, VanVleet shut the door with two early threes — sandwiched by a Boucher make that forced a Knicks timeout — putting the Raptors up 14.
Against the Knicks, and especially against a team shooting 8% from three, these little stretches are enough to earn a win. Does this kind of victory build confidence that the Raptors can find last season’s form? Not at all. However, there were times when this game was close where Toronto looked disjointed as a unit — finger-pointing on defense, playing a little joylessly on offense, and thinking more than playing.
A free and easy fourth, followed by a double-digit win, may not solve everything ailing the Raptors — but it should lift the mood. Maybe that’s all these guys need to start putting the pieces together.