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Raptors 104, Knicks 99: “I can take this kind of loss”

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O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!

NBA: Toronto Raptors at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

From a bird’s eye view, the Knicks tank job this season looks simple and uniform.

But nights like this, a 12-round throwdown with one of the league’s three best teams, are what make the journey worth it, even when there’s no destination in reach. New York came in losers of 15 straight and fell 104-99 to Toronto. But this wasn’t another lost loss. This was a glimpse of something taking shape.

The first semblance of shape was David Fizdale starting Mario Hezonja and Kevin Knox at the forward spots. I like it — if not the specific components, at least the prototype. The Knicks were sparked from the start; Hezonja seems best-suited as a four and he was attacking the glass early on, finishing with a season-high nine rebounds. He found Dotson ahead of the field with a look a lot of fours wouldn’t see or couldn’t deliver. Speaking of attacking the glass...

Soon after Knox couldn’t finish off a slick Hezonja feed, but a DeAndre Jordan putback made it 14-3 Knicks; the 14 unanswered tied their biggest run this season. The first half of the first quarter was the best the Knicks have looked in weeks. Of course, the Raptors are the Raptors, so they kept their heads on straight and kept chipping away and chipping away until they evened things up. A Norman Powell three capped a 9-0 run to give them the lead late in the first. Speaking of late in the first, Marc Gasol made his Raptor debut to surprising acclaim.

A little later, a “Let’s Go Raptors!” chant could be heard. That’s gotta be an MSG first. Kenny Albert tried to soothe the shame by pointing out the Maple Leafs play the Rangers tomorrow, but I dunno, man. I dunno. I do know this: Mitchell Robinson will learn more from two months with Jordan around than he did in fourth months with...not Jordan.

Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard were content to let the universe unfold without forcing the issue, which honestly was kinda terrifying ‘cuz it meant Toronto had two aces in the hole.

Neither team could pull away, as evidenced by a deeeep Lowry three late in the first half giving the Raptors a four-point lead that felt like eight. Jordan grabbed the last rebound before the break (one of his 18 on the night) and as the clock ran out he slam-bounced the ball high off the ground, earning himself a technical. What is this, the NFL? He waited till the half was over. Let the man express himself, ref!

Like the Detroit game last night and like most Knick games this year, the third quarter opened like a trap door as they quickly fell behind by double-digits. Toronto is a good team. You can tell because they have as many losses all year as the Knicks have in a row right now. Toronto is also a pretty cool defensive squadron. You can tell by the numbers: they’re seventh in defensive rating and sixth in opponents’ eFG%. Another way to tell: watch them play. The Knicks missed a ton of seemingly good looks in the paint, but they were mostly all contested.

Back-to-back threes by Knox cut the gap to six, but buckets were tough to come by on both ends. I like it when both teams are scrambling to reach 100. I like the feeling that every basket is earned, that it means something. Same way I’ll take a 2-1 baseball game over 8-6 every time. Powell did his thing again to push the lead to five entering the fourth.

Only nine Knicks played. There was no Lance Thomas.

No Luke Kornet.

No Isaiah Hicks.

What there was was quite a bit of Kadeem Allen, who scored a season-high 14 and brought the Knicks even multiple times in the fourth.

Then came one of my favorite plays all season. Normally I avoid telling you what I’m about to show you, but I’m breaking character ‘cuz I wanna make sure you get the full picture before you see it so you don’t miss anything. Toronto wasn’t quite set defensively and Noah Vonleh had the ball near the left corner. Fred VanVleet had been guarding him but wasn’t back yet, so Gasol broke toward Vonleh. Vonleh threw the ball toward the rim, higher than the top of the backboard, where Robinson was underneath between Gasol and Powell. He caught it over Powell and finished over Gasol for an and-one. What a freaking athlete.

The free throw put New York up one, their first lead since the second. Lowry and Danny Green hit back-to-back threes to put Toronto back in business. Green hit three from deep in the fourth, the last pushing the lead to seven and seeming to wrap things up.

But if the Knicks were gonna lose, they were gonna make the Raptors earn the win. Knox hit a corner three with two minutes left to cut the gap in half. In the last minute Smith tried and failed to draw contact on a three as the shot clock ran down. On Toronto’s next possession, Lowry lofted a lazy lob that both Allen and Smith nearly stole from Pascal Siakam, but it deflected to Serge Ibaka, who drew a foul on Jordan and hit both free throws, Hezonja missed a rushed three after a timeout, Lowry made one free throw and the Raptors were up six. Again, it looked like it should be a wrap.

But for some reason Toronto, up six, had four defenders in the paint as Smith drove to the rim, so when Jordan grabbed the rebound Hezonja was wide open at the top of the arc. He hit from three to cut it to three. After calling time, the Raptors advanced the ball into the frontcourt, then Kawhi launched it into the backcourt to Lowry.

I FUCKING HATE THAT TEAMS CAN INBOUND FROM THE FRONTCOURT TO THE BACKCOURT. GIVE THE DEFENSE A FIGHTING CHANCE! WE’RE HERE FOR DRAMA. WE’RE HERE TO BE ENTERTAINED. Lowry hit both free throws. A Hezonja three rimmed out. The Knicks lost, but for once it looked like free will rather than predestination. Anytime your favorite team can make John Calvin eat a bag of posthumous dicks, that’s sweet sun-ripened justice.

Notes:

  • I’m a fan of DSJ. and I’m a fan of my mental health. So I’m not going to engage in a nightly evaluation of the man. There are a ton of factors outside of Smith that will determine his role, his impact and his greater meaning moving forward. But I did enjoy praising his effort last night in Detroit, so in the interest of fairness and balance, I present a DSJ not-highlight:

Lowry gave our boy the business tonight.

  • Career-high 15 points for M-Rob. The legend continues.
  • 25, 21 and 4 blocks from Jordan and Robinson. Imagine chanting for Enes Kanter to get in a game.
  • Among my least-favorite parts of this season, besides never seeing Kristaps Porzingis play again and Kanter’s descent into farce, are the unfair criticisms levied at Knox. There are holes in his game. No shit. But just because we have more platform and more audience doesn’t mean we gotta hold a coronation to honor every pulse in our gullivers. Knox is young, unfinished, and shows promise. I’m cool wit dat.

40 minutes for the 19-year-old. That means more to me than the 20 points, 21 shots or 4-of-9 from deep.

  • I don’t know what the future holds for DSJ or Frank Ntilikina. What I do know? That future is fine. As. Fuck.
  • Six assists, four rebounds and a couple of steals for Allen in addition to the points. He leaves it all on the floor and looks grateful to be doing so. Easy to root for.
  • Lowry is AMAZING at drawing fouls. Most dudes can draw certain textbook, familar whistles, but Lowry is Carmen Sandiego gakking them calls. Victimized DSJ and Allen.
  • I don’t know if Lowry’s ever done E, but if he has I get the feeling he’s one maaaad touchy-feely roller.
  • Every now and then someone — usually a national writer — lists Kawhi as a possible free agent target for the Knicks. I’d be less surprised by the Knicks winning a title next year without Kevin Durant than I’d be by Kawhi signing here.
  • Remarkable to see Kawhi and Gasol in uniform for The North and that they didn’t have to give up OG Anunoby in either deal. Intelligent management must be a helluva drug.
  • Green reminds me of Robert Horry and Lamar Odom — not his game, but his I.D. as a guy who’ll never be the primary, secondary or even tertiary factor on a champion, but can be a solid starter on a dynasty. I see that as Vonleh’s ceiling. Right as I wrote that, this happened:
  • Patrick McCaw is reminiscent of young Russell Westbrook, as far as how high the hops on his J.
  • When Clyde says things like Green — who was All-Defensive Second Team two years ago — is “not renowned for his defense,” I’m transported to the borderland between incredulous and wanting to pull the cord on the legend. I don’t listen to Frazier expecting to be educated; that ship sailed a long time ago. But some guys lose their fastball and work on their off-speed stuff. Clyde’s throwing batting practice night after night.
  • Clyde referenced the season-long trend of the Knicks coming out poorly in third quarters, especially at home. “What can they do to change that...?” Albert asked him. I was afraid Clyde would offer a hackneyed critique of the players. To my partial relief, he put the onus on Fizdale needing to psych the players up. That, or, you know, a tactical adjustment now and then. Still, I was proud Clyde didn’t just blame the players. Maybe I’m enabling him. I dunno.
  • Raptor coach Nick Nurse looks like a chain restaurant manager who’s very sorry it took an hour to seat your table and that your pot stickers were lukewarm, but no, he can’t refund your meal. What he can do is offer a complimentary order of quesadillas. Cheese quesadillas. Meat will be an up-charge.
  • A noble loss is still a hardship. Need a pick-me-up?
  • 93 days till the lottery.

Quoth derek harper (not Derek Harper): “I can take this kind of loss.” Next game is Monday in Cleveland. Given the new lottery odds are even among the worst three teams, I think I wanna win that one. I don’t think I can take that kind of loss. If I have to, I guess I will. Gas up your rationalizations, true believers. See you then.