The Toronto Raptors are reeling, once again. A dispiriting loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, capping a 3-3 home stand that many observers pegged as make-or-break for their season, the Raptors are 19-24 and right where you don’t want to be in the standings: outside the post-season and the top five lottery odds in the draft.
Now, a road trip. Toronto plays nine of their next 11 games away from Scotiabank Arena, a span of time that goes right up to the February 9 trade deadline. If the last week has been an opportunity to get right, this next month is about not letting the bottom fall out. If the Raptors continue to lose more than they win, especially showing the efforts they did against the Hawks, it’s likely time to sell for Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster.
With that gloom hanging over us, let’s look at today’s game against the Knicks — a matinee start at Madison Square Garden as the league has lined up their usual all-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day schedule. And while it’s been a chore to watch the Raptors lately, we can at least say that basketball is more entertaining than whatever you were doing at work. So, there’s that!
Here are the game details and what to watch for.
Where to Watch:
TSN, 3 PM ET
Toronto Raptors – Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes
New York Knicks – Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
Toronto Raptors – Fred VanVleet (questionable – back soreness), Otto Porter Jr. (out – foot)
New York Knicks – none
While the Raptors have looked better since having their full complement of rotation players back, two things have remained inconsistent: defense and effort (and, most of the time, a combination of both). Allowing 56 points to the Hawks backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray on Saturday should raise alarm bells for a team that used to have the tools and gameplan to force small guards into difficult shots and driving lanes.
This has become par for the course, though, and it’s something that needs to be fixed against a Knicks team that also boasts a strong backcourt. Jalen Brunson had 26 points and shot 9-for-19 the last time these two teams met, and while he was forced into five turnovers, the Raptors were unable to convert regularly.
We know the Raptors have the defensive chops — what’s been so confounding is the team has been too disjointed to execute throughout this 2022-23 season. The rumours that something is amiss chemistry wise would show themselves on the defensive end first. In order to win consistently on the road over the next month, the Raptors need to get on the same page and execute their effort from opening tap game in and game out.
Late in Saturday’s game, Nick Nurse hit one of his patented emergency buttons. This time, it was benching Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. — both struggling to defend and combining to shoot 3-for-16 — to play an all-forward lineup of Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa. While Siakam fouled out and prevented us from seeing the lineup close the game, it was one of those “holy shit” moments — Nurse has rarely benched VanVleet in their time working together. To do so during a comeback speaks to where the Raptors’ guard is at with his inconsistent play.
Luckily, Fred has a way of bouncing back. He did end up getting back into Saturday’s game, but surely took to heart the decision to go away from him in the late stages of the game. Two weeks ago, when the noise around VanVleet’s struggles were at a fever pitch, he responded with back-to-back 28 point games against the Bucks and the Knicks.
Under the lights of MSG, facing New York once again in a favourable matchup — the Knicks lack rim protection outside of Mitchell Robinson — I would bet on a strong Fred performance in this one, despite back soreness putting him as a questionable designation. Winning the guard matchup would be massive for the Raptors’ chances of getting the win.
In a brutal stretch of games that sees the Raptors head to Milwaukee, Boston, Minnesota, Sacramento and Golden State in the next 12 days — Madison Square Garden may start to feel like friendly confines in comparison.
The Raptors have a history of big performances at this venue — whether it be Pascal Siakam scoring 52 points before Christmas or the aforementioned Fred bounce back game to start the new year. It doesn’t matter who it is, but having someone lift their game up to meet the stage — a holiday game in one of the league’s best arenas — would be a great short-term salve for the long-term issues this team continues to deal with.