Extra Pass: Raptors gear up for Knicks matchup

Published January 16, 2023, 3:00 PMMiguel Flores

The Toronto Raptors will try to win another one in New York when they visit the Knicks.

What's up with the Toronto Raptors?

The Raptors are an easy punching bag for daily talking heads and fidgety Twitter fingers just as it's more convenient to scoff at things we don't understand. Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse represent basketball maximalism and it's probable the greater NBA fandom won’t appreciate their contributions like how we forget today's offenses were born from guys like Mike D'Antoni and Don Nelson or how everyone rallied against Sam Hinkie's process before accepting it is the best way for most franchises to build a contender.

It's a tragedy, really, that the Raptors are under so much pressure to trade when, in reality, they have plenty of time to continue building and discovering how far their mad experiment can go. If you aren’t aware, the Raptors have underperformed against expectations this season, going 19-24, so far, with a couple of worrying losing spells. Scottie Barnes hasn’t panned out. Fred VanVleet is far from being Freddie All-Star. There’s been plenty of murmurs around the league that the Raptors should be sellers in the impending trade deadline. 

Sure, it does make sense to cut at least some of their losses and flip some players for future assets. But isn’t it a bit too early to give up on our favorite gangly group? It’s hard to doubt whatever Nurse and Ujiri decide is the best course of action. Hopefully, they don’t blow it up too much.

Pascal Siakam is having a tremendous season despite missing some time to injury. He’s a bona fide All-Star dropping 25.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists while providing elite versatile defense. Ditto for OG Anunoby, who has cooled down offensively over the last month, but has proven he’s among the upper echelon of perimeter defenders. He has a case for First Team All-Defense and maybe even Defensive Player of the Year, if he campaigns like Marcus Smart.

If anything, we should expect the Raptors to make a run late in the season. If VanVleet and Barnes get into a rhythm, they’re going to be one of the best teams in the East.

What’s up with the New York Knicks?

Bing Bong might have gone out of style, but the Knicks now truly embraced the hype and fervor of that fabled video. Just when they looked dead in the water to start the season, they pulled it together and are now climbing the Eastern Conference postseason picture with a 24-19 record.

Julius Randle has been the rock for the Knicks. He’s redeemed himself after some worrying performances last season and to start this season. While Don Julio’s shot selection can still be painful at times, he’s amped his shooting percentage up to 45.5 percent this season. It’s easy to live with Randle’s volume shooting ways when he’s hitting like this because he does so much more for the Knicks, averaging 10.7 boards and 3.8 dimes. He should be an All-Star against this season.

But the biggest reason for the Knicks’ turnaround this season is Jalen Brunson. He hasn't been a Knick for a full season, but he has probably satiated decades of clamoring for a New York point guard. Brunson is from New Jersey, but he does play with the toughness and savvy of a Rucker Park hustler. He’s dropping 22.2 points with 6.4 assists per game with a bag that’s best described as Tony Parker in Timbs. Brunson loves bullying defenders and lofting off-balance shots and floaters in the lane. 

There’s also been some cause for optimism in how guys like RJ Barrett, Quentin Grmies. and Mitchell Robinson have bought in to their roles and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive machinations. These young players also represent the room this team still has to grow. If they figure it out, the Knicks are a sleeper contender in the East.

Where to watch Knicks-Raptors

The Raptors visit the Knicks at Madison Square Garden tomorrow at 4 AM live on NBA League Pass. These teams have split their first two meetings this season with the Raptors ending the Knicks’ eight-game winning streak before Christmas and the Knicks getting a bit of revenge earlier this month. This should be a back-and-forth matchup that serves as a litmus test for how good both teams are heading into the trade deadline.