Oh what could have been for the Toronto Raptors as they hosted the New York Knicks on Friday night.
This was supposed to be a chance for the Air Canada Centre crowd to recognize several achievements, but all of those things were contingent on a victory by the home team.
Or so it seemed.
A win would have vaulted the Raptors to 15 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history and tied the club record of 47 regular season victories. More importantly, it would have guaranteed the Atlantic Division crown and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Two weeks ago, the Raptors were able to deliver in somewhat similar circumstances by defeating the Boston Celtics to control their fate and clinch a postseason berth for the first time since in six years.
However, the Knicks delayed those plans this time around and managed to keep their very slim playoff hopes alive in the process.
Then, after the game, good news was delivered, despite the missed opportunity to celebrate in style.
The Raptors managed to clinch the division after all because the Atlanta Hawks beat the Brooklyn Nets later on Friday night to make it official.
Neither team was able to wrestle control of the game in the early going.
The Raptors lead 26-24 after the first quarter and 47-45 at halftime, mostly because they drained seven 3-pointers, compared to just three long range buckets by the Knicks.
Something must have inspired the Knicks at the break, though.
They found easy opportunities in transition and powered their way to 63 points in the second half, en route to a hard-fought and much deserved 108-100 victory.
New York dominated the inside game, winning the points-in-the-paint battle by a margin of 36-22. On top of that, the Knicks also sank 32 free throws, whereas the Raptors converted 25. Those numbers alone give a pretty good indication of which team was more determined to attack the basket.
Against the 76ers on Wednesday, the Raptors allowed a whopping 62 points in the painted area. Unless the Raptors are able to find a way to tighten up their interior defense, they could be in for a quick exit from the playoffs.
Turning the ball over 14 times also didn’t do the home team any favors.
On the season, the Raptors fell to 10-25 when they surrender 100 or more points. And, for one night anyway, the Knicks looked more like the team that won 54 games in 2012-13 than the one that is 34-45 this season.
The game was still up for grabs heading into the final frame, with New York holding a narrow 78-77 lead. That all changed with just less than five minutes remaining.
Toronto was trailing 96-89 at the 4:51 mark of the fourth quarter, looking very much like a team on the ropes. Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire then delivered a pair of knockout punches in the form of consecutive thunderous dunks. His loud roar after the first slam seemed to close the curtain on the night.
The Raptors did manage to pull within four points with 31 seconds left, but, on this night, a miraculous comeback was not in the cards.
Carmelo Anthony poured in a game-high 30 points on a tidy 8-for-17 shooting from the field. He was also a regular visitor to the free throw line where he drained 13 of 14 attempts.
The aforementioned Stoudemire channeled a younger, healthier version of himself and did his part with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
For the Raptors, the back-court duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry did their typical damage at the offensive end, scoring 26 and 25 points respectively. Furthermore, Lowry drained four of the Raptors 15 3-point field goals on the night to bring his season total to 180 and surpass Morris Peterson (177) and Damon Stoudamire (176) for the franchise single-season record.
Honorable mention also goes to Jonas Valanciunas. His career-high 21 boards accounted for half of his teams total rebounds in the contest.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
More than anything, the Raptors didn’t look as hungry for the win as the Knicks. I would have thought that with what was at stake, the Raptors would have brought more energy, more intensity, and more urgency than they did.
Protecting the paint continues to be an issue for the Raptors. They allowed too many opportunities that either resulted in easy baskets and/or trips to the free throw line.
The Raptors kept themselves in the game by sinking 15-of-33 3-point attempts (45.5 percent), but that just wasn’t enough to offset the 63 points allowed in the second half.
When healthy, the Knicks are clearly better than their record shows, or at least that’s how the Raptors made it look tonight.
MISSING IN ACTION
I was hoping that this late-season showdown would feature Andrea Bargnani playing in a hostile environment with an energized crowd. It would have been especially fitting given all that was at stake tonight.
But in reality, Bargnani has been sidelined with an elbow injury since Jan. 22 and the Raptors couldn’t meet the challenge on their own tonight anyway.
While the Raptors should feel a great sense of accomplishment (and probably relief) in locking up the division title, they surely recognize that fine-tuning is required across the board ahead of their playoff run.
Also of issue is the fact that they fell into fourth place in the Eastern Conference as a result of their loss to the Knicks and the Chicago Bulls’ victory over the Detroit Pistons on Friday.
The Raptors will have a chance to get back on the right track when they visit the Pistons on Sunday. However, if giving up points in the paint is what ails them, then the Pistons are far from the cure. On Friday, the Pistons dropped 56 points in the paint against a Bulls team that is well known for its defense-first mentality.
Toronto then hosts the Milwaukee Bucks before closing out the season on the road against the Knicks.
I suspect we will learn a lot about the Raptors over these final three games.
Tags: Toronto Raptors