As we open 2022, the NBA is in a pretty weird place. The recent COVID outbreaks have caused some bizarre and interesting lineup experiments around the league, and a few postponements as well, which makes looking at the standings and recent results pretty strange.
The New York Knicks are currently two wins ahead of the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference standings, and currently hold the 10th spot — also known as the last play-in spot. They’ve also played four more games than Toronto. While the Raptors currently have their full roster back from their outbreak, the Knicks — one of the first teams to kickstart the current league-wide outbreak — still have five players in the health and safety protocols, including All-Star Julius Randle.
Now, January is usually the month where “middling” teams have to make that call, to either push for the playoffs or allow the wins to fall by the wayside and aim for lottery positioning (that’s a lot of words to say “tank”). But in this crazy, COVID-hampered season, anything can happen; it’s not inconceivable that either the Knicks or Raptors, once healthy, could start to put things to together and go on a run; both teams are only three games out of the fifth spot!
Where to Watch:
TSN, 3:30 PM ET
Toronto – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby
New York — RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Miles McBride, Evan Fournier, Taj Gibson
Toronto — David Johnson (calf – out), Scottie Barnes (knee – out), Goran Dragic (personal – out)
New York — Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, Jericho Sims, Wayne Seldon (health and safety protocols – out), Kemba Walker (knee – out), Derrick Rose (ankle – out), Danuel House Jr. (finger – out), Evan Fournier (ankle – questionable)
The stands at Scotiabank Arena may be empty, but guess what? The Raptors roster is full! OK, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself; Scottie Barnes is still questionable as I write this. But for the first time in ages the Raptors might have a fully healthy roster, one that includes both (nominal) centres in Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa, and the full range of non-centre starters in Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.
It’s been an occurrence so rare that it feels like Raptors fans are winning the lottery today. (Too bad we can’t be there to see it!)
It’s entirely possible the group is a little rusty; after all, they haven’t all played together in a while, and they all took a conditioning hit while sitting out.
It's also possible that a fully constructed Raptors team might blow the doors of these no-name Knicks.
Who are these guys? v. 76.3327
It feels like every game requires an additional hour of research to determine who’s on what team these days, and where they came from. The Raptors had to go Cleveland last Sunday with a team of strangers (and got blown out); today, the Knicks lineup looks to be in somewhat similar, if not quite as dire, straits. Three key players (Noel, Robinson, Randle) are in the health and safety protocols, and two more (Rose, Walker) are hurt. Evan Fournier is also questionable. Tom Thibodeau, who typically plays one of the shortest rotations in the league, probably spent the entire night figuring out his lineup!
Now, I dislike the idea of calling situations like this an opportunity for the Raptors; it always feels like kicking an opponent when they're down. But the Raptors had to withstand their own lineup woes, including that dumb trip to Chicago and the beatdown in Cleveland, so it doesn’t feel too unfair to say that the Raptors should take it to the Knicks today.
(All of that said, it’s a shame that Kemba Walker is hurt; the Kembassaince was one of the coolest stories going the past few weeks!)
Normally, one of me, Sean Woodley, or Jay Rosales covers home games in person, but we’ve opted to keep our distance from Scotiabank Arena for a little while, out of (you guessed it) an abundance of caution. But I have to admit I was a little jealous of Koreen, Grange, Smith and the media that did show up to Friday night’s game; it sounds like covering a live game at an empty arena was a truly bizarre and surreal experience. I’m a little sad to have missed it!
Of course, it’s got to be even more bizarre and surreal for the Raptors. They played in an empty building in Tampa for parts of last season, and some games on the road and in the Bubble too of course. But this was their first true home game with no crowd. When Pascal Siakam missed two fourth-quarter free throws, part of a 4-for-9 night from the stripe, I wondered if the lack of fans, and the odd sense of depth that must create behind the basket, was throwing him off.
Hopefully the Raptors have all settled in for tonight — and maybe, once the Raptors get that comfort level, being the only arena currently without fans becomes an additional, Bizarro World home court advantage. Other teams aren’t used to playing in empty arenas!
Either way, the Raptors do need to take better advantage of their home floor. They’re just 8-10 at home; with five of their next six at home, this is the perfect time to turn that record around.