Don’t look now but the New York Knicks are 5-1 and tied for the best record in the association.
A lot had been said about the Knicks’ poor playoff showing against Atlanta Hawks but with some shrewd off-season moves, they have quieted those conversations, for now. After replacing Elfrid Payton with former All-Star Kemba Walker, the Knicks have answered the starting point guard question. Impressive early showings from Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, with the steadying presence of Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson have made their bench once again a strength. Evan Fournier has been a revelation shooting the ball. Add another year of improvement from RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, and it’s been a recipe for success.
The Toronto Raptors, without Pascal Siakam, have surprised as well. Noted “no level scorer” Scottie Barnes has smashed all early expectations. Fred VanVleet’s floor game has taken a step. OG Anunoby is going through some growing pains but shows great potential as a scorer. Dalano Banton! After an abysmal season opener, Toronto has settled down and gotten gritty. As with all Tom Thibodeau teams, the Knicks will be ready to battle. It could be a down in the mud, trench fight tonight.
It’s important to note some historical perspective: It is exactly 75 years to the date when the New Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskies played the first NBA Game (known at the time as Basketball Association of America or BAA) in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The cost for a ticket ranged from $0.25 to $2.50. The Huskies lost 68-66 before a crowd of 7,000. This time 75 years later, a Toronto team is visiting a Garden to play a New York team. Let’s see if they, like the visiting team many moons ago, before a crowd of over 20,000, can eek out a win. Here are the details for tonight’s contest.
Where to Watch:
TSN1/4, 7:30PM EST
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Svi Mykhailiuk, OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa
New York – Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
Toronto — Scottie Barnes (thumb – doubtful), Pascal Siakam (shoulder – out), Yuta Watanabe (calf – out)
New York – Nerlens Noel (calf – questionable)
It’s Getting Spicy
Through seven games this season, the Raptors are above .500. It took 31 games last season to reach that point. The best part is they’ve gotten there without Pascal Siakam. His immediate replacement in the starting lineup — Scottie Barnes — has filled in seamlessly and defied everyone’s expectations, including my own.
Now comes the hard part. With his eventual return, who will Siakam replace? Barnes has been, as wild as it is to say now, arguably our best player. Gary Trent Jr. has been a pest defensively, offers spacing, and performs better as a starter. Is Nick Nurse willing to sacrificing the spacing? Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby are not in the conversation to be benched. That leaves one name. Precious Achiuwa.
Despite that, it might still be Barnes who gets sent to the bench. Don’t get me wrong, closing lineups will almost certainly be VanVleet, Trent Jr, Anunoby, Barnes, and Siakam. In a long season, having one of Siakam, Barnes, or Anunoby playing center full time will wear on the players. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem benching Barnes considering he’s a rookie, but his incredible play has made it a question, one that is hard to answer.
RJ is here
There are only two types of RJ Barrett fans. Canadians and Knicks fans. To say that RJ Barrett is underappreciated as a young player in this league is an understatement. His game, not as flashy as his draft classmates Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, has improved in all facets. With Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton replaced by Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, Barrett has been tasked with picking up the opposition’s best perimeter player. Names like DeMar DeRozan and Jayson Tatum. It’s a role he has excelled in.
Through 5 games, RJ Barrett's 31.3 defensive FG% is the best/lowest among NBA wings who defend at least 12 shots per game.— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) October 29, 2021
(PJ's Tucker's 29.3 DFG% is the best for wings who defend 10+ shots)
His development as a defender has made him a legitimate two-way player. On Saturday night against the Pelicans, Barrett posted an efficient 35 points on 12-18 shooting while adding eight rebounds and six assists. With the improved spacing in this year’s Knicks team, he will have freedom and opportunity to have performances like that. It’s funny how a random off night from Julius Randle might have convinced Coach Thibodeau to put the ball in Barrett’s hands and unlocked a new element to his game.
The New Killer Bs?
Long time Raptors fans might recognize the Andrea Bargnani and Chris Bosh duo as The Killer Bs. However, with the recent play Dalano Banton, Chris Boucher, and Khem Birch, a new challenger for the moniker has arrived. The Canadian trio have been the first three off the bench in the last 3 games for Coach Nurse, and according to Toronto’s current three-game win streak, it’s gone well.
It’s still quite early in the season but teams have had difficulty competing with the energy this group brings. Banton — a surprise addition considering how well he’s been performing, completely taking the minutes from both Goran Dragic and Malachi Flynn — pushes the pace at every opportunity. Birch has slowly worked himself back to game speed and made himself a menace on the offensive glass. Finally, Boucher, can only be described by one word: chaos.
New York’s bench offers a steep challenge. Let’s see if the group can continue with the stellar play.