As crazy as it sounds, the Toronto Raptors were facing a must-win against the New York Knicks last night — starting the season 0-4 would have been disastrous. Pre-game, the team talked about the tension and disappointment in their record.
But given their less-than-inspired play through three quarters, that desperation certainly didn’t seem apparent! Thankfully they finally put together a decent fourth quarter and beat the Knicks 100-83. And all of Raptordom breathed a sigh of relief.
A win sure feels good, but there’s still a lot this team needs to clean up.
1. If 2020 Was a Basketball Game, That Was It
Was there a more fitting way to end the shittiest year ever than by watching last night’s game? For the first 30 minutes in particular, it was one of the ugliest and poorly played games we’d seen from the Raptors in ages. It just seemed like all fun and joy and good vibes had been sucked from the team.
The final 16 minutes showed the Raptors playing at least competent basketball (the Knicks continued to be garbage). But it still wasn’t much fun. The teams scored a mere 42 points each in the first half! They missed a combined 68 three-pointers! Neither team looked like they even wanted to be out there.
I guess I can’t blame them — I don’t think any of us wanted to live in 2020 a minute longer than we had to.
2. The Mad Scientist Strikes!
It’s been a while since anyone’s called Nick Nurse a mad scientist, since last year he A) rarely had his full lineup and B) played his main guys tons of minutes when he had them.
Well last night he sure seemed to be throwing a bunch of stuff together to see how it reacted. In the first quarter, he threw out a lineup with Kyle Lowry, Stanley Johnson, Chris Boucher, Yuta Watanabe and Terence Davis. Norman Powell subbed in for Johnson before the second quarter, but that group carried on for three more minutes! (Ultimately, the Raptors only lost those minutes by one point.)
Then Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Aron Baynes came back in, giving us the starters with Davis in the Lowry spot.
Johnson, Watanabe and Davis got more minutes in the second half, and Alex Len — who we’ll get to momentarily — played minutes after Aron Baynes took a Julius Randle elbow.
Ultimately I have no problem with the team searching for a spark after the outcomes of games 1-3, especially with Pascal Siakam sidelined. But the choices of who got minutes sure was eyebrow-raising.
3. The Flynn Benching Makes Even Less Sense Now
The above lineups, especially the extended minutes for Terence Davis and Stanley Johnson, and the lack of playing time for Malachi Flynn, continues to confuse. Look, I’m happy for Watanabe, and even Stanley too, that they’re getting some playing time. But I’m not sure what either of them, or Terence Davis, has done to show that they deserve a shot before Matt Thomas, DeAndre’ Bembry, Paul Watson or yes, Malachi Flynn, all of whom played well in the preseason or limited minutes they’ve had so far this season.
As I said the other day, I don’t want Flynn just thrown out there as some kind of saviour. (I was pleased to see him get a few reps in garbage time at least.) But I have to believe he’s worth at least a shot! If Watanabe can get one, surely Malachi Flynn deserves one too. And since one of the Raptors’ main weaknesses thus far has been the poor play when Lowry is on the bench, if you’re gonna go deep into the roster to fix it, it just seems weird to leave a point guard stashed on the bench.
And the DNP for Thomas and garbage time-only for Bembry are also weird. To my eyes, both have played well this season; not enough to earn 25 minutes a game or anything, but enough to earn the 10-15 minutes that went to Johnson, Watanabe and Davis.
4. Big Minutes
One thing I did like last night was how the Raptors rolled out their frontcourt. Aron Baynes opened the night by draining a triple but wasn’t particularly effective after that, and Nurse quickly went to Chris Boucher to switch things up. Boucher’s length and OG Anunoby’s strength made them an effective big lineup, and OG himself was nominally the centre for several stretches.
Boucher even got some minutes at the four alongside Alex Len, who had his best game as a Raptor, showing off a smooth stroke from range and finishing with 11 points in 12 minutes. The Raptors also went zone for a stretch in the second half, to help prevent the Knicks’ big bodies from scoring inside against the slim Boucher.
All told, the group did a solid job considering the absence of Siakam.
5. Whither the Chris Finch Effect?
I think most Raptors fans, myself included, were pleased that the Raptors had added Chris Finch to the coaching staff in the offseason, as it seemed to signal an upgrade on their ho-hum offense from last season.
Well that certainly hasn’t been the case so far — the offense is way worse than last year, and against some pretty average competition too. All of the movement and cutting promised hasn’t materialized, and we’re seeing way too much standing around, way too much overdribbling (hi Freddy) and far too many late clock three-pointers.
And what happened to the transition game? I know Pascal Siakam’s speed is a big part of that, and he wasn’t out there last night, but how did the Knicks miss 58 shots and turn the ball over 15 times, and the Raptors only got six fast break points!?
I can excuse the defense’s slow start inasmuch as that usually comes slower, and it takes time for new players to learn all of Toronto’s schemes. But I’m not sure what the excuse is at this point for the poor showing on the other end.
Well, that one’s over at least. Yes, I’m referring to the game. And also 2020. Here’s to a better 2021, both for the Raptors on the court, and for all of us as well.