The Toronto Raptors finally had all of their top players in the lineup at the same time — and it was a beautiful thing. Sure, their opponent today was a shorthanded New York Knicks team, but as the saying goes, you can only play who’s in front of you — and the Raptors and their fans watching at home will gladly take the 120-105 win.
Regardless of the outcome, it was great to see the full lineup together. Pre-game, Nick Nurse spoke about the more challenging decision-making he’d have to make tonight, with all of his core players available for the first time all year. Whatever mix he settled on worked, as the Raptors finished the third quarter with a 23-point lead and the starters only had to play brief mop-up duty in the fourth.
We got a great taste on Friday of what a lineup with Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby had in it can do; tonight, we saw the potential that adding Scottie Barnes can do. Barnes was a little rusty, but the foursome combined for 82 points.
Siakam and VanVleet were the standouts, as Siakam had a brilliant all-around performance, finishing with 20 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Fred led a dominant third quarter effort that put the Raps well out in front; VanVleet himself finished with 37 points on just 17 shots, along with five boards and five assists
Evan Fournier led the Knicks with 20.
The Raptors jumped out to a 14-5 lead led by VanVleet and Anunoby; Anunoby used his strength to overpower RJ Barrett several drives, and Freddy scored on a brillaint Eurostep-into-an-up-and-under finish.
Anunoby scored nine in the opening quarter as the Raptors stretched the lead to 11. But Alec Burks led a bench spurt that allowed the Knicks to close within three, 30-27, by the end of the frame.
Khem Birch was the first payer off the bench for Toronto on this night; it was a pleasure to see Birch come into the game, and know that nothing was coming off the table, you know? The Raptors have struggled to find consistency with the bench all season (never more so than the last 10 days) but with a full group, it should be much easier to find.
Another interesting tidbit was the lineup that Nick Nurse used to close the quarter; Barnes closed with Svi Mykhailiuk, Birch, Chris Boucher and OG Anunoby. Thus Nurse opted not choose between his currently struggling backup point guards; he just let Scottie Barnes run the point when Fred VanVleet was resting. Nurse played 10 players in the first half, and neither Malachi Flynn nor Dalano Banton saw the floor. (Both played in garbage time.)
After the game, Nick said that the team hadn’t done any practicing with Siakam and Barnes running the one, indicating that the coach was once again operating on gut feel — and it was a good feeling once again.
The Raptors really showed their depth and defensive versatility in the second quarter, though, holding the Knicks to just one point throughout the first six minutes of the second. The Raptors scored 15 of their own, giving them a 45-28 lead. Siakam was brilliant in the quarter, using his vision to find his teammates both in transition and in the halfcourt, including a dish to Achiuwa down low and a nice find of Gary Trent Jr. for three.
Achiuwa himself showed a little bit of passing chops in the second, finding Chris Boucher for an alley-oop in transition:
The Knicks responded with a 6-0 run to keep the game within reach, and the Raptors led 56-45 lead at the half.
It was the third quarter, though, that really put to rest any doubt that the shorthanded Knicks could hang with the full-strength Raptors. An endless string of whistles early seemed to take some of the momentum out of the game, but Pascal Siakam led a 6-0 scoring burst, then found Scottie Barnes in the corner to push the lead to 78-62 — and then Barnes dropped another to make it 81-72.
From there, it was Fred VanVleet’s turn to take over.
VanVleet was brilliant in the quarter, scoring 19 points on 6-for-8 shooting, as the Raps dropped 40 in the frame. Freddy also pulled down four boards and dished three assists. On the downside, he played the entire quarter — but the 96-74 lead meant he didn’t have to play a single minute in the fourth. He finished the night at just 31 minutes played.
One Raptor who couldn’t get it going tonight was Gary Trent Jr., as foul trouble held him back — he picked up his fifth less than two minutes into the third, and fouled out in the fourth.
New York’s deep bench managed to make the score respectable late, but this game was over after three.
RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin finished with 19 apiece for the Knicks.
This game was the second straight played with no fans, and afterward, Nick Nurse ocne again said it was up to the team to create their own energy, to replace that of the fans. He said he was impressed with the noise and the cheering from the bench tonight. “Sometimes you have to make your own fun,” he said — and who are we to disagree?
The Raptors are back at it on Tuesday against the Spurs.