The Raptors were playing their best basketball of the season winning 2 of 3 on the road against high level Western Conference competition. The Knicks have struggled all year and took a loss to the Bulls on Christmas Day. They would be without their best player as Carmelo Anthony would not suit up in this one. It had the makings of an easy win for the Raptors on paper.
In true Raptors fashion when you get confidence in them they often disappoint and at the start of this game this seemed to be the case. In addition the Raptors would face something they rarely had seen in a motivated Andrea Bargnani. The former Raptor number one pick played with a noticeable difference from his normal effort level on a night to night basis.
The Raptors had a terrible first quarter and for the rest of the night it was a pattern that developed until the fourth quarter. Toronto would make a little push to make the game close and the Knicks would respond. The Raptors would head into halftime down 9 points and looking pretty terrible for the most part. Andrea Bargnani would get a double-double early in the second half as he rebounded his own miss and scoring on Amir Johnson who had a very sluggish night at the office. After that, as Bargnani had done many times as a Raptor he would fade into the background failing to produce much the rest of the way. He would only get a few points and a couple more rebounds on the night to finish with a Knicks team high 18 but shot just 6 for 17 and had 12 rebounds. Bargnani had failed to record a double-double in his entire last season with Raptors.
As Bargnani faded Jonas Valanciunas would come to life in this game especially in the second half and specifically the forth quarter. He had on the night 16 points and a career high 18 rebounds 7 of which came on the offensive glass. Kyle Lowry continues his great play of late with 15 points and 11 assists for his own double-double on the night. It was DeMar DeRozan as he is on most nights that provided the most consistent effort with 25 points on 7 of 13 shooting to lead all scorers in this game.
The Raptors would manage to cut the lead to 5 points heading into the final quarter. Both teams would start out cold as could be in the fourth. The Knicks were almost begging the Raptors to take the lead in this game. They finally took them up on it and once the Raptors got rolling they would not be stopped. They out scored the Knicks 29-12 in the final quarter to win it 95-83.
The Raptors creep closer to being a 500 team at 12-15 as the Knicks fall to 9-20 on the season. If the Raptors win the second half of this back to back it makes it seem unlikely they would come back from this. While much was made of the difficulty of the Raptors first two months of the schedule they have for the most part survived it and now the schedule starts to turn and the chances this team changes direction and plays for the draft becomes far less likely.
If the Raptors do decide to go all in to maintain their lead in the Atlantic Division and make a push for the playoffs there are still some long term concerns. The most glaring is the future of Kyle Lowry beyond this season. He was rumoured to be traded but if the Raptors are in it to win it you would think that likely doesn’t happen. If that is the case the Raptors run the risk of Lowry walking away in the off-season for nothing. If they are able to re-sign him how much will it be to keep him? Lowry currently has a very friendly contract in terms of the cap for his position. It is safe to say if his play continues he will earn a huge raise where ever he decides to play next year.
The combination of that and missing out on a top pick in the lottery would be a significant blow if they lost Lowry as well. The Raptors short term has never looked this bright in a long time. The long term remains clouded with uncertainty no matter what they do this season that is positive.
Masai Ujiri has a tough minefield in front of him to balance the short term success and secure a future that is a viable one to build on that success. If he is able to retain Lowry and this group stays together it might grow into something that can be competitive. DeMar DeRozan making strides to be a legit number one option obvious helps build the case to roll with this group. Valnciunas gave you a sample of what he could be in this game against the Knicks. While Terrence Ross struggles on the defensive end he is becoming more consistent on the offensive end.
The Raptors are a house of cards that you could easily see fall down if things go the way they have in the past for Toronto. It is becoming pretty clear though that they will have a hard time avoiding being good enough to win their Atlantic Division. It is hard not to argue they have the most talent that is performing well in the division. Heck outside of Miami and Indiana who is playing better ball in the East right now? Atlanta might have been an answer but they just took a huge blow losing Al Horford with a torn peck muscle which the last time that happened he was gone for four months.
It seems like it or not the Raptors and Andrew Wiggins or any top lottery pick are not going to be matched up in the short term. The Raptors look on a path to the post-season like it or not. In terms of the players and Dwane Casey you can put them into the like column for that. Raptors are looking like a different team since Rudy Gay left town. It was like Gay was holding back a number of folks on this roster. Gay was able to get a win in overtime last night for his new team over Miami but Raptors fans will not miss him. He never was the leader the Bryan Colangelo promised him to be when trading for him to try and save his job more or less.