The Knicks have been Beaten by Boston, Bullied by the Bucks, Pounded by the Pacers and now Trucked in Toronto. The Eastern Conference is growing stronger by the day, as evidenced by the Jimmy Butler trade for the 76ers, whom the Knicks won’t see for another 10 days.
And as they meet each one of these Eastern Elites, David Fizdale’s young Knicks are seeing just how far they have to go to catch up.
The script was the same in this defeat to the Raptors, who own the NBA’s best record at 12-1. The Knicks had good energy at the start, ran toe-to-toe into the third quarter and then were overwhelmed when it was winning time.
“They’re solid all around,” rookie Kevin Knox said. “They’re deep at pretty much every position . . . That’s a veteran team and they’re really good and that’s why they’re No. 1 in the East right now.”
Kawhi Leonard (12 points) and Kyle Lowry (10 points, 8 assists) didn’t do much damage in this game, but it was the well-scouted depth of the Raptors that emerged in this one. Pascal Siakam, a late first-round pick in 2016, poured in a career-high 23 points, including 3 three-pointers, while OG Anunoby, a late first-round pick in 2017, added 16 points and Delon Wright, a late first-round pick in 2015, had 12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal off the bench to provide the spark.
The Raptors’ bench, which proved to be their strength last season, produced 62 points.
“When they go to the bench,” Fizdale said, “they just keep coming at you.”
This is important to note because while everyone gets excited for the marquee names to make a roster top-heavy, it’s the supporting cast that is usually what determines the true contenders from those on the treadmill. The Raptors may have made big trades for the likes of Leonard, Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but you can’t overlook the work done to find Siakam, Anunoby, Wright and Fred VanVleet, an undrafted gem who was signed last season out of the G-League.
This is how you build a team. The Knicks are hoping lottery picks Knox and Frank Ntilikina, second-round finds Mitchell Robinson and Daymean Dotson and undrafted gem Allonzo Trier are equally admired as the Raptors’ supporting cast.
But, as this game showed, they’re quite far behind in the development stage.
Ntilikina and Dotson combined to shoot 7 for 23, including 2 for 10 from downtown. Trier showed again he can be overwhelmed by defensive length, as he was just 2 for 6 and struggled to get anything going offensively. Robinson had some moments in 28:25, and had a low-impact 4 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals. He was, however plus-5 while on the court and the only Knick player who was on the plus-side in the game.
The Knicks trailed by 11 at the half, but rallied with their usual good effort out of halftime to cut the deficit to 70-69 with 8:51 left in the third quarter. The Raptors hardly blinked, however, as they outscored the Knicks 30-13 to finish the quarter and take an 18-point lead into the fourth.
It was a barrage of threes by the Raptors that broke this game open. As we’ve seen this season — and in recent years — the Knicks rarely can keep pace with teams that are good at shooting the three. Toronto made 14 of 35 from downtown (40%) in the game, which the Knicks were just 6 for 22. That is an area the Knicks hierarchy knows they have to address when making roster moves for the future.
The Raptors have length, athleticism and three-point shooting. So do the Bucks and the Celtics. The 76ers aren’t a great shooting team, but they are athletic and just added one of the game’s best two-way players not named Kawhi.
The Knicks finally have more athleticism this year and they also have length. When Kristaps Porzingis returns, they’ll get even longer.
But what they lack is high-percentage three-point shooting and, of course, experience.
The bar has been raised in the East. The Knicks have to keep building to reach it, but it goes beyond just trying to land a big free agent. It’s about finding supporting-cast players who can fit the mold that is being set by the top teams in the conference.
And that’s why this season is so important.
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– With Lance Thomas (knee) out for at least the next four weeks, Knox is now afforded the opportunity to play significant minutes in the rotation. He was the first forward off the bench and played 24:14, which was the most of any reserve player. The kid does not hesitate to shoot the basketball. He made 4 of his first 8 shots before he finished 4 for 11 with 12 points.
– Robinson, like Knox, is undaunted when he’s out there but it’s so obvious that they’re running more on instinct than they are in the flow of the game. Knox tends to get caught watching a lot, which is typical of a young player. Robinson fumbles with the ball from time-to-time, which costs him a rebound or a steal. But it’s impossible to not notice how often he is in the right place on defense. You also have to love how personal he takes defense and how little-by-little his intensity level is growing when he’s on the court. You can see him challenging shots, banging in the paint and barking at teammates for missed assignments. And then there was one play which saw 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas attempt a turnaround fall-back jumper that Robinson easily swatted away. Valanciunas laughed at the ridiculousness of Robinson’s length and quickness to make the play. The kid, in fact, blocked another shot on that same play and it turned into a fast break that resulted in a Mario Hezonja dunk.
– The honeymoon portion of the season is officially over. The first sign was when Enes Kanter gritted his teeth through a demotion from the starting lineup — “Coach told me to lead the second group so that’s what I’m going to do” was repeated like “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” from The Shining — and then came the social media musings of The Unicorn, which took aim at Fizdale and the media.
It was a response to Fizdale telling reporters that KP had not yet started sprinting and he was not thinking about the all-star because he had to focus on the players on the court. The headlines suggested KP wasn’t making progress from his knee surgery and that fueled speculation that he may not play at all this season. A clearly anxious and frustrated Porzingis posted pictures of himself in a beautiful, textbook sprinting stride on an outdoor track and then a third photo with a caption that this was “bull—.” Fizdale seemed to be in the bullseye and suddenly those summer nights bonding in Liepaja were a distant memory. (A man sits in a sauna and gets whacked with a tree branch for this?) The next day, however, Fiz took the hit for the unnecessary drama and called himself a “doofus” because he didn’t know KP had been sprinting on a track. He said he and Porzingis “had a great talk about it” and that he is “working his tail off” and he thought the coverage suggested, “that people thought he wasn’t busting his hump.”
Wally Szczerbiak, who went through some injuries in his career, said on the pregame show, “I know what it’s like to be injured as a player, you hate it. You do not like watching your teammates in practice, in games, sitting on the sidelines knowing that you can help them win games, knowing that basketball is your passion to play, knowing that you were an all-star last year. You want to get back out there on the floor. There’s no doubt in my mind that KP can’t wait to get back in the lineup.”
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