In a year that’s been anything but normal, it was somewhat refreshing to get back to an old standby: the Knicks hosting the Raptors at Madison Square Garden on an April afternoon. It’s been a regular part of the spring schedule for years and, in the recent past, Toronto has enjoyed plenty of wins and fun times at the Mecca.
This is a different Knicks team, though — especially over the past few weeks. Winners of eight straight games coming in, the Julius Randle-led squad have fans dancing in Penn Station, as they’ve improved all the way to the fourth spot in the East (just outside of the dominant “Big Three” of Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn).
The Raptors have been streaking lately too, winning four straight and finally getting their troops together in a Wednesday victory over the Nets. Today, though, they got to witness a team that’s just a bit hotter, and has certainly had more time for their best players to gel. New York shook off all the pressure from the Raptors starters and shot 56 percent from the field and 51.6 from three to win 120-103, extending their NBA-best win streak to nine games.
On the Raptors side, an imbalance in performances ended up being the key difference. The trio of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet combined to score 80 of the team’s 103 points, shooting 49 percent between them. The rest of the team? Just 34.6 percent shooting to get 23 points. The bench in particular was a disaster, as four players combined to score just 11 points, compared to 43 pine points for the Knicks. Gary Trent Jr. was a -33, Freddie Gillespie was -24, and Yuta Watanabe was -22, as all three failed to make an imprint on the game.
Give the Knicks credit where it’s due, though. Even though the Raptors are healthier than they’ve been, they’re still missing Chris Boucher, and New York obviously read the scouting report in their defensive schemes.
When guarding the starters, they were content to leave Khem Birch with a world of space, making space a premium for the other four. Then with the game winding down, as the Raptors went small, New York’s size gave them the edge. Nerlens Noel made a huge block on Siakam and RJ Barrett skied over Kyle Lowry for a put back in the last two minutes, ending a spurt that saw their lead dwindle to seven.
Another game, another BIG TIME DENIAL for Nerlens Noel in the clutch!— NBA (@NBA) April 24, 2021
1:04 left on ESPN pic.twitter.com/5nufZtDkkJ
There were bright spots, though. Siakam had one of his more well-rounded offensive performances since returning from health and safety protocols, shooting 8-for-19 to score 26 points, including five threes.
He also had seven rebounds and five assists and continued a stretch of improved passing on the inside, making a couple key setups to Birch for easy baskets.
OG Anunoby didn’t take any plays off either. The primary matchup on a red hot Julius Randle, Anunoby did his best to slow the Most Improved Player front-runner. Even a combination of OG, trapping schemes, and pressure off the dribble couldn’t stop Randle today, though, as the big man had a game-high 31 points and ten rebounds on just 17 shots.
Anunoby did get some back on the offensive end. Shooting 9-for-16 and 6-for-11 from three, he finished with 27 points and five boards. VanVleet was also excellent, matching OG’s team-high 27 on 10-of-20 shooting and 11 assists.
Without the support, though, the Raptors just couldn’t keep up in a track meet with the Knicks. It seemed like every run was met with a roadblock. In the first half, the Knicks made several contested jumpers late in the shot clock, more than a few by Derrick Rose off the bench (an excellent 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting and +26). Late, it was threes from Reggie Bullock (16 points) and Obi Toppin (nine points). Finally, Tom Thibodeau took two extremely savvy timeouts in the fourth quarter, following short runs by the Raptors starters. They were barely allowed to start, just 4-0 and 5-0, and each time New York came out of the break with a play to re-establish their lead.
With the loss, the Raptors once again find themselves in a bit of a no man’s land in the Eastern Conference. A game and a half back of Washington in the ten seed and the Bulls between them, they’ll be pressed to push again with a difficult schedule coming up. After facing the Cavs on Monday, they have matchups with the Nets, Nuggets, and Jazz in the next week.