Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 102-96 loss to the New York Knicks.
One — Tough: The Raptors keep finding ways to disappoint, even when most fans are past the point of expecting anything from this cursed season. The Raptors played terribly in the first half, made up for it with an incredible push in the second half, looked to have control of the game, only to lose that momentum and fall back down, but then come up with a golden chance to win or force overtime, only to then lose it on a rookie mistake from their max player. The Raptors must be the funniest team to watch from an opposing perspective, but from the inside looking out it's just sad. At least the losses come with more hopes in the lottery, but given their luck this season, relying on good fortune might be silly.
Two — Shocking: Much of the Raptors' struggles in crunch time unfortunately traces back to Pascal Siakam, who found another way to drop the ball after already seeing four of his game-deciding attempts rim out. Siakam had the ball on a 3-on-2 fast break, and he looked to be passing to Gary Trent Jr. open in the corner for three, but instead Siakam changed his mind at the last second and made a move to the rim. But in doing so, he committed a double dribble, and it essentially clinched the game. Siakam was also culpable on the Knicks' final two baskets of the game, once getting caught ball-watching with Julius Randle flashing behind him for a dunk, and then calling an unnecessary switch to have the rookie guard Malachi Flynn on Randle, which Siakam then helped on the drive, but that only left R.J. Barrett open in the corner for 3. All three mistakes are inexcusable, and to have them all happen in quick succession is incredibly unfortunate. It's not as if you can't trust Siakam to defend, or for him to run a fast break, but these were just lapses in judgement that came at the worst possible moment.
Three — Off: Siakam was just as bad in the first half, where he shot 1-for-11 while generally being clueless against the Knicks' overwhelming physicality in the paint. Siakam was much better in the third quarter, working the two-man game with Chris Boucher for a layup, two free throws, and a three, while also getting his own offense, but the final statline doesn't lie. Siakam had five turnovers, six fouls, and shot 5-of-18 from the field, and this was his fourth time fouling out and each time it was a winnable loss. Even dating back to last season, Siakam was a player who got his production in spurts, but part of the challenge of being a leading man is to be a stabilizing presence for lesser players. Siakam just hasn't done that this season with any type of consistency, although in all fairness, there has also been no stability in Siakam's circumstances.
Four — Return: Kyle Lowry was back to being the Raptors' best player in his return from a toe injury that sidelined him for two weeks. Lowry carried the Raptors' offense early on as he was the only player to score with everyone else lagging, and Lowry was steady in crunch time with a driving layup, a cheeky bit of foul drawing, a surprise double on Randle in the post to force a clutch stop, and the steal that should have saved the game. Lowry was back to setting the table for his teammates, getting his own when necessary, and was even a hugely entertaining figure on the sidelines as he mimicked officials and supported his teammates. He is the emotional touchstone for this team, in the good times and the bad, and his maturity is badly needed given all the unfortunate circumstances surrounding this season.
Five — Teach: Lowry's return pushed Flynn back to the bench, but Flynn was still able to impact the game in his 27 minutes. Flynn tends to defer to Lowry when he's on the floor, just as he does with Fred VanVleet, and it will take some more confidence for Flynn to translate his aggressiveness as a lead ball handler over to a supporting role without the ball, but that's an incredibly hard transition for a rookie who had the ball all his life. What was good to see was Flynn taking control of the team when Lowry was on the bench. Flynn sparked the Raptors' comeback push in the fourth, knocking down a contested midrange jumper, baiting his fellow rookie guard Immanuel Quickley into a shooting foul, setting up Rodney Hood for three after drawing the defense to him, and by making two threes, one of which was eventually erased as one polymer of his heel was deemed to be out of bounds upon review. Flynn missed an open three late that would have swung the game, but it was just good to see Nurse reward the rookie for his play. His minutes will naturally come down when Lowry and VanVleet are both in, so Flynn needs all the reps he can get in the meantime.
Six — Tough: One thing that's clear after three weeks is that Trent Jr. is willing to make a tough shot. Trent Jr. faced aggressive double teams after his career performance with 44 points, and that did force him out of his typical looks, but he was able to respond and still deliver a team-high 23 points. Trent Jr. got more of his shots on the move, whether it was faking out a defender for a stepback corner three, getting into the midrange area for more space to fire, or even using his physicality in the post like Gary Trent Sr. to create separation on a baseline jumper. There's a certain skill in being able to shoot in tight quarters, and that is often the difference between a very efficient player, and one that is unguardable. His overall efficiency might suffer because he's willing to take tougher shots than your average player, but passing up looks and forcing someone else to create only passes the problem to someone else, and Trent Jr. is very much a player who is brave enough to take that responsibility. It's one of the ways he differs from Norman Powell, who was a brilliant finisher and incredibly efficient, but he wasn't someone who could attack 1-on-1 and get his own.
Seven — Emerging: Yuta Watanabe is trending in the right direction. Watanabe is consistently a positive on the defensive end, where he collected three steals in just 18 minutes, but he's also starting to take his chances offensively. Watanabe nailed two threes and made a tough driving layup to put the Raptors ahead in the fourth, and he even aggressively took a pull-up three which caught back iron, but it was emblematic of a shift in confidence. Watanabe shouldn't limit himself to being a hustle player, because he has the skillset to be a two-way contributor. Very rarely do you see players who's confidence is behind their skills — the opposite is unfortunately true for many athletes — but Watanabe is an exception.
Eight — Solid: Khem Birch was as advertised in his first game as a Raptor. Birch played with fellow newcomer Freddie Gillespie for extended stretches in the first half, and playing two centers predictably clogged the paint and made life difficult for both players. Nurse adjusted in the second half and split their time, which allowed Birch to showcase more of his skillset in being discipline defensively, collecting rebounds, and finishing above the rim in the pick-and-roll. Nurse suddenly has too many bigs at his disposal, and finding time for all three of Boucher, Gillespie, and Birch will be tough, but it's a lot better than having Aron Baynes as his only option. Baynes didn't see the floor tonight and most likely it will remain that way.
Nine — Homecoming: Birch spoke glowingly about signing with the Raptors, calling it a "dream come true" to play for the only Canadian team. The Montreal native shared stories of his dad driving his family hours to see the Raptors play in Toronto when he was growing up. Given that he's 28, the Birch family was likely on hand to see some of the dark years in franchise history in the late 2000's, which must really mean they were huge fans. In any case, it's always great to see Canadians flock to the Raptors, because that is a dream for players. And for the franchise itself, as much as playing in Canada is a nuisance for some Americans, attracting local talent is the one distinct geographical advantage for the Raptors. With nearly two dozen Canadians in the league, and more coming every year in the draft, and with Nurse forming connections as the national team head coach, it's bound to pay off for the Raptors at some point.
Ten — Growth: Speaking of that, Barrett showed great improvement in his jumpshooting as he sank his hometown team. Barrett was one of the worst shooters in basketball last season, and the thought of him improving his shot is a scary proposition given that he's pretty complete in other areas of his game. Barrett is the most promising prospect on the Knicks, who seem to have found their identity as a defensive club and they're heading to the playoffs as things stand. But if they don't, that could also pay off for Team Canada in its upcoming Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
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