One — Necessary: A win is a win, and the Raptors finally got their first of the season. Sure, it was against a truly awful Knicks team that shot 3-for-36 from deep (not a typo) but the Raptors were desperate. Kyle Lowry called this game a must-win, and reserve center Alex Len admitted to tension in the locker room following their 0-3 start, which saw the Raptors blow double-digit leads in all three games. All is not well just because they snapped their streak, but it should at least take the pressure off them for at least a few days as they continue to regroup.
Two — Surprise: The Raptors announced shortly before tip-off that Pascal Siakam would not play tonight. At first it was unclear what the motive was, and many jumped ahead in linking Siakam to a hypothetical swap for James Harden, but in reality it was simply a disciplinary move. Siakam fouled out against the Sixers with under a minute left and headed straight to the locker room instead of staying out with his teammates, and the Raptors slapped him on the wrist. By having Siakam on the active roster but not actually suspending him, Siakam gets to keep his game cheque, but the message was delivered. As a leader of the team, he cannot ever turn his back on the group no matter how frustrated he was in the moment. Siakam appeared to take it well, as he sat on the bench and cheered on teammates.
Three — Sloppy: The game itself was a fitting tribute to the year 2020, in that it was ugly, mismanaged, and downright hard to watch. Nick Nurse shuffled his rotation in an effort to make up for Siakam’s absence and to find a winning hand, and that created lineups that should ideally feature in preseason or even summer league. Kyle Lowry was out there at times with Terence Davis (his first real run of the season), Yuta Watanabe, Stanley Johnson, and Alex Len. The Raptors weren’t short on effort, but scoring was hard to come by, even against a porous Knicks team. Nurse seems to be sending a message that defense earns minutes in his rotations, although stacking his lineup with third-stringers seems counterintuitive.
Four — Bricks: The Raptors eventually pulled away in the second half by using a zone defense to create stops to fuel their fast break. The Knicks literally couldn’t make a single three, no matter how open they were, as so the Raptors simply packed the paint and cut the Knicks off from their only source of offense. The results were comical, as the Knicks just kept chucking up bricks from the perimeter while the Raptors caught fire and pulled away. Fred VanVleet would hit stepback threes to beat the buzzer on one end, only for the Knicks to respond with airballs. It was almost like watching a high school game.
Five — Response: Norman Powell capitalized on the opportunity to start in place of Siakam. Powell struggled badly in his first three games, shooting 4-of-23 while also being a minus defensively. But he started sharp tonight, racing behind the Knicks’ defense for two layups right off the bat, before finishing the game with 17 points. His three-point shot isn’t as sharp as it was last season, where he connected on a career-high 40 percent from deep, but this is a start. For better or for worse, the Raptors are counting on Powell to deliver as a consistent scorer off the bench. Performances like this one need to become the norm.
Six — Smooth: The Knicks considered VanVleet as a target in free agency, but they ultimately passed to continue being the laughingstock of the league. VanVleet showed tonight exactly what the Knicks are missing, and almost made a point to deliver the highlights. VanVleet hit a rainbow baseline jumper that arched above the backboard before dropping sweetly through the rim to elude a 7-footer. He topped that with a stepback three against Julius Randle in the fourth quarter which extended the lead to six points.
Seven — Adjustment: Nurse said in preseason that he didn’t foresee Len playing outside of the paint, but it was Len’s shooting that sparked the Raptors in the third quarter. Len swished three corner threes — one from the left corner and a pair from the right corner — and was confidently looking for that shot. This isn’t entirely a fluke, as Len shot a respectable 36 percent from deep two seasons ago, but has since been relegated to being a banger in the post. Given that Len hasn’t been particularly reliable around the basket, it might actually make more sense for him to stretch it out for the perimeter on occasion, if only as a different look to confuse the defense. There’s nothing structurally wrong with his jumper, and if Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher are getting the green light, then Len should too.
Eight — Rotation: Nurse is right to expand his bench because the talent isn’t there to stick with a consistent eight-man rotation. The Raptors don’t have eight two-way players, and they will encounter different needs according to the opponents. In games where the Raptors need more scoring, Boucher and Matt Thomas should see more time. Against teams with size like the Knicks and Sixers, Len and Stanley Johnson become more useful. Nurse needs to wring every ounce of talent from this roster because it is short on star talent. Mixing and matching as he did in the last two games is the way to go.
Nine — Fiery: Lowry wanted this game bad. He was barking at the Knicks bench in the fourth quarter, screaming and-one after setting up Boucher with a transition dunk. On the missed free throw by Boucher, Lowry won the offensive rebound despite being the smallest player on the floor, and kicked it to VanVleet who nailed a three to cap an 11-0 run by the Raptors to seize control, which allowed Lowry to get in another round of digs.
Ten — Awkward: One of the many quirks of playing in Tampa is that “home” games can become hostile. The Raptors heard boos at the free-throw line, which undoubtedly came from New York snowbirds spending their holidays in Florida. It may seem marginal and meaningless, but playing an entire season of road games must be draining for the Raptors, especially after the bubble experience. The year 2020 was all about embracing new normals, and the Raptors are just trying to figure it out like the rest of us.
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