Mitchell Robinson's recent injury is the primary reason we got smacked in the paint and on second-chance points last game against the Hawks. But, as a Tom Thibodeau-coached team, we should have the defensive insight and discipline to maintain our identity and effort without Robinson. Thibs is a defensive maestro, right? The Hawks were only 19th in offensive rating, and the Knicks, without Mitchell but still possessing many great defensive players and a supposed defensive maestro, let them score 139 points on them. I’m calling it now, the dreadful, annoying as-hell Thibs simps will be blaming the Robinson injury when the losses begin to pile up over the next few weeks when we go through a brutal stretch against many great teams.
But look closer, and you’ll discover the Robinson injury matter a whole hell of a lot, but it’s one of many reasons the Knicks' defense will begin to crumble henceforth. Thibs plays an outdated mode of defense, relying on the center position to clean up what the perimeter players miss on rotations, relying way too much on Robinson to bail them out. With him gone, the Hawks feasted on the Knicks' failed drop-coverage scheme, allowing the Hawks 14 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points. Going into this game, Thibodeau has a 1-13 record when trailing at the half. This stat reveals mainly that he is either unable to adjust his schemes to match what the opposing team is giving him or is too arrogant in his ways. Either way, it's exhausted his players and fanbase alike, watching this team blow leads and falter late for soul-crushing losses.
While the Toronto Raptors are experiencing their own up and down season (20-27), they’re built the exact opposite of the Knicks. The roster is filled with length, athleticism, and ball-handling, with head coach Nick Nurse, often employing four stretch wings and Fred VanVleet at the point. It has given the Knicks fits since Thibodeau has been at the helm, with the two teams often enduring close slugfest, with the Raptors usually getting the better of the Knicks. With Robinson out for a few weeks, this game is the start of a brutal stretch for the Knicks, where they will face Eastern Conference powerhouses Cavaliers, Celtics, and Nets, then the Lakers, Heat, Clippers, and 76ers. Oof. They need this one badly.
Tip-off’s at 6 p.m. EST.
Fred VanVleet (6’1”, 197 lb.) has struggled this season. His shot selection and shooting efficiency have taken a tumble, with his teammates often looking visibly disgusted at some of the shots he’s heaved up. Except against the Knicks, that is. In the two teams' last matchup on Jan. 16, the guard had 33 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. He has been Jalen Brunson’s kryptonite in many ways. He can match his footwork, upper body strength, and bully-ball playing style as mirror images. There is, perhaps, no matchup for Brunson more intriguing, and a better test, than VanVleet. And the winner typically determines the game.
In his second season, Scottie Barnes (6’9”, 227 lb.) has been mired in a dreadful sophomore slump with a field goal percentage of 46.2%, a three-point percentage of 28.8%, and a 2.7 win share rating. The Raptors are built around Barnes's strengths and weaknesses, and his matchup with Quentin Grimes will be another one to watch, as the two were both drafted last year in wildly different positions (Barnes was taken fourth, Grimes 25th), but both are the future of their team as a lethal 3-and-D prototype with high ceiling.
With trade season heating up, OG Anunoby (6’7”, 232 lb.) is one of the hottest names on the block. The former 23rd pick in the 2017 draft averages 17.5 points and 5.8 rebounds on 52.3% eFG. He is one of the best three and d players in the league, with many contenders looking at him as a trade option as their third or perhaps second offensive option. He and RJ Barrett are on similar trajectories and possess many of the same positives. OG is more disciplined on defense, with Barrett capable of more offensive explosions. Still, both seem on the precipice of something special as guys developing incrementally but steadily each season.
The engine of the Raptors' offense is Pascal Siakam (6’9”, 230 lb.), who is having an All-NBA season at 25.1 ppg, 8.2 RPG, and 6.4 APG. With Siakam playing this well, and the Raptors possessing a modern roster of stretchy, two-way wings, they are perhaps the most disappointing team this season. But none of the blame for the under-achieving year should be on Siakam, who will be matched up against another second option masquerading as a first in Julus Randle. That is not meant to be a diss. Both are special players but would be better suited in a secondary role, where they would truly feast. Both are having the best years of their career and deserve end-of-year accolades. It should be another battle between the two forwards, who will be fighting not only for a win today but a spot on the All-Star and All-NBA lists this season.
With Robinson out with a sprained thumb, expect second-year stud Jericho Sims to start again, a move that shocked most who expected Isaiah Hartenstein to get the nod. That Sims went from out of the rotation completely to starting shows just how loose Thibs plays with the rotation, signaling to us all he doesn't have a grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of this roster nor a solid philosophy in place for minute distribution. Sims should have his way on the glass, as the Raptors tend to play without a traditional big, with gritty but under-sized Precious Achiuwa (6’8”, 203 lb.) manning the five.
The next few weeks are bound to be brutal. Through it all, you can guarantee Thibs interns, simps, and lemmings will continue to carry water for the curmudgeon dinosaur, defending his lapses and lost leads with phrases like “Thibs has forgotten more about basketball than you’ll ever know.” It’s unbearable. To make it worse, Thibs is going nowhere. He is the best friend, former client, and daddy's boy to Leon Rose, who is at the helm of the Knicks front office. Thibodeau was his splashiest signing. To fire him would be terrible optics and a clear signal that Rose hired the wrong man to lead this team to the promised land. Like it or not, Thibs is here to stay, as is his iso-heavy offense, drop-coverage defense, and 40-plus minute game logs for his starters. Pray for our kids—raptors by single digits.
Scotiabank Arena. Toronto Friday. 6 p.m. ET. Deja vu!