A deep sigh of relief came over Scotiabank Arena on Sunday as the Toronto Raptors came away with a 125-116 win over the New York Knicks.
It didn't come easy, and it once again looked like they were going to give up a double-digit lead for the third straight contest. Toronto opened hot, going up 17 near the end of the first, but defensive lapses let the Knicks back into the game, as they grabbed the lead in the third quarter behind a 12-0 run.
With the matchup tied 86-86 going into the fourth, head coach Nick Nurse took a risk. He sat his stars in Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, which has oftentimes proved costly for the Raptors. What followed was a pleasant surprise in Scotiabank Arena, which for the first time all season wasn’t sold out — perhaps a sign of how little hope remains for the season.
Instead, it was a lineup of Juancho Hernangomez, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes that pushed the Raptors forward. They outscored the Knicks 26-10 in the first 7:15 of the final frame, helping Toronto put together a double-digit lead, which would ultimately translate to a win.
Barnes led the charge by getting teammates involved, as Trent put up big shots, finishing with eight of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. Nurse applauded Barnes' ability to call screens for Trent for different actions, direct traffic, push the team on the break, all while making simple passes — with perhaps the outlier being his “74-yard touchdown.”
“Coaches tonight gave [Scottie] the lineup there in the fourth and he was able to capitalize and run the show,” VanVleet said post-game, after finishing with a team-high 28 points.
“He's continued to grow as a player, and the sky's the limit obviously.”
Barnes said he was looking to just play with “high I.Q.” by attacking the same openings he found against the Knicks, as he finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
For anything that didn’t work, Achiuwa and Boucher cleaned up the glass with offensive boards for what Nurse calls “high-spirit plays." The centre duo ultimately finished with a combined 26 points and 18 rebounds, as it marked the second successful start for Achiuwa.
On defence, that lineup slowed down the Knicks by “flying around in the zone” and limiting second chances.
The role players stepping up meant no Raptor logged over 40 minutes, ending a four-game streak for Siakam, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 33 minutes. It was their rebounding prowess that Nurse says allowed him to run with that lineup for so long, as they limited the Knicks to one offensive rebound in the fourth, after they finished the first three frames with 13.
The victory snapped a three-game losing skid for the Raptors, and helped them bounce back from a tough loss on Saturday versus the Boston Celtics, where they gave up an 11-point lead, and a Thursday loss vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves, where they squandered an 18-point advantage. Surrendering leads has been a recurring trend for the Raptors this season, as they now sit 11th in the Eastern Conference at 21-27, their worst through 48 games since the 2012-13 season.
It seemed like the Raptors might have sadly walked toward a similar collapse on Sunday. They opened the first quarter with arguably one of their best frames of the season, outscoring the Knicks 37-22 behind a red-hot shooting display.
They held the momentum, even though Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett combined for 15 points on 50 percent shooting in the first quarter, which included this thunderous slam.
The second period resembled more of a scrimmage, with both teams combining for nine turnovers. The madness continued in the third, until the Knicks took hold of momentum. With around three minutes left in that frame, the Knicks ran off a 12-0 run to take their first lead since the first. Seven of those points came as second-chance opportunities.
That Barnes-led lineup ultimately stopped the bleeding to take back the momentum, and also slowed down Randle, who finished with two points in the final frame. When asked post-game how the Raptors can weather these types of storms, VanVleet chalked it up to the nature of the NBA.
“You can't really concentrate on the leads in the NBA. If you watch enough games, you understand, you know it’s up and down, you know it’s hard to play with a lead,” he said.
“Closing the games, we can do that a little bit better. And you certainly don't want to be on the wrong end of a run to end the game, you know, like in Minnesota. We’re playing pretty good basketball, not great. And definitely not that championship caliber by any stretch, but we're getting better.”
Following the win, the Raptors now set their eyes on a seven-game road trip before returning to Scotiabank Arena on the cusp of the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline.
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