The Raptors (48-17) have won seven straight and burnished their credentials as a potential NBA Finals team with a 108-105 win over Houston on Friday night, ending the Rockets’ 17-game winning streak.
Kyle Lowry hit seven of nine from 3-point range and finished with 30 points against his former team while DeMar DeRozan added 23. Toronto limited the Rockets, who average 15.4 3-pointers, to nine of 27 from beyond the arc and made 15 of 38 themselves.
The Raptors, who lead the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division, moved within three games of the Rockets for the NBA’s best record and have won 14 of their last 15 overall.
New York (24-42) are trending in the opposite direction, and their 120-112 loss at Milwaukee on Friday night capped a winless four-game road swing and extended their losing streak to six. Tim Hardaway Jr. had 26 points, but the Knicks defense struggled to contain Milwaukee’s starting frontcourt as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and John Henson combined for 72 points.
The Knicks, who are assured of their fifth consecutive losing season, have dropped nine of their previous ten against the Raptors, with the lone victory a 108-100 home triumph November 22 that snapped a four-game home losing streak and an eight-game overall skid.
Three keys to the game
Taking care of business - One reason Toronto are atop the Eastern Conference is that they put in the work against the league's lightweights. The Raptors have won 15 straight games against sub .500 teams since a 98-93 loss to Dallas on December 26, with seven of those victories coming on the road.
Williams making most of his minutes - The Knicks reserve shooting guard is on his second ten-day contract after being cut by the Houston Rockets last month and has provided good energy. He scored a season-high 18 points Friday night and has averaged 8.9 points and 3.0 rebounds while shooting 54.5 percent in seven games for New York.
Raptors earn respect - While Friday's win was billed as a potential NBA Finals showdown, such a meeting is far from guaranteed since the Raptors will likely need to go through LeBron James to get through the Eastern Conference, and the Rockets will have to dethrone the Golden State Warriors.
But there was plenty to be impressed about by Toronto, with Rockets guard Chris Paul offering an interesting plaudit. “I think the biggest, too, is they’re playing a lot freer and without as much thought,” he told the Toronto Star, “and that shows a lot with the way DeMar is playing. He’s shooting a lot more threes now, he’s just hooping. And that’s the same we say for us. And they actually look like they have fun playing together.”
Matchup to watch
PG Kyle Lowry vs PG Emmanuel Mudiay - The Knicks are in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation against Toronto's backcourt. Rookie Frank Ntilikina is clearly the better defender between him and Emmanuel Mudiay, so the dilemma for coach Jeff Hornacek is who does Mudiay guard as he tries to limit the damage.
While both guards are 6' 5", Ntilikina's defensive skills makes it more likely he will guard DeRozan, whose mid-post game is among the league's best at the shooting guard position. That leaves Mudiay, who has a staggeringly awful net rating of minus-20.2 as New York have given up 120.8 points per 100 possessions, guarding Lowry as the Raptors point guard is coming off his third 30-point game of the season and was one away from a season-high in 3-pointers made.
Toronto Raptors projected starting lineup
PG - Kyle Lowry | SG - DeMar DeRozan | C - Jonas Valanciunas | SF - Norman Powell | PF - Serge Ibaka
New York Knicks projected starting lineup
PG - Emmanuel Mudiay | SG - Frank Ntilikina | C - Enes Kanter | SF - Tim Hardaway Jr. | PF - Lance Thomas
DeRozan scored 40 points as Toronto split the first two games of the season series, then suffered through a two-for-11 shooting night and finished with eight points as the Raptors bench picked up the starters in a 113-88 rout February 8. He has averaged 21.3 points on 49.8 percent shooting in 32 career games versus the Knicks and has averaged 22.3 points on 50.9 percent shooting in 15 contests at Madison Square Garden, recording three 30-point games.
Lowry also had an off night in last month's win, scoring seven points while missing eight of ten shots. He had 47 points, 18 rebounds and 15 assists in the other two meetings this season, connecting on nine of 17 3-point shots. He has averaged 15.9 points, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals in 30 matchups with the Knicks, hitting 40.4 percent of his long-range shots.
Knicks center Enes Kanter is one of 12 players averaging a double-double this season with 14.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. He has posted double-doubles in 13 of his last 16 games, averaging 16.1 points and 13.2 rebounds while shooting 62.3 percent in that stretch. He totaled 23 points and ten rebounds in the first two games between the teams this season, missing the third game due to an injury.
Kanter has averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in 14 lifetime games against the Raptors, shooting 53.1 percent.
Hardaway powered the Knicks to a 108-100 victory over Toronto on November 22, scoring 12 of his 38 points in the third quarter when New York outscored the Raptors 41-10. He totaled 22 points in the other two games, shooting just nine of 25. Hardaway has averaged 15.3 points in 16 games against the Raptors, connecting on 42.5 percent of his shots from 3-point range.
The Raptors are 9.5-point favorites, with the line moving one point higher from its open of 8.5.
While the Raptors have covered in five of the last seven meetings between the teams, they have done so just twice in their last eight trips to New York City. Toronto, though, have covered in four of their last five road games and 11 of 15 overall. They are also 21-8 against the spread in their last 29 divisional matchups and have covered in eight of their last 10 matchups against teams with a losing record.
New York have failed to cover in their last five games at Madison Square Garden and are just 2-11 in their last 13 against the spread overall. The Knicks are also 2-10 against the spread in their last 12 contests versus teams when coming off a straight up loss and have covered only once in their last ten matches when playing a team with a winning record.
The over/under has ticked higher one point to 2018, and the under has trended for Toronto of late, going 5-1-1 in their last seven contests and 4-1-1 in their last six versus conference rivals. The under is 7-3 in Toronto's last ten divisional clashes, but the over has gone 10-3 in their last 13 road games.
The over has hit in four of New York's last five divisional games and has gone 6-2 in their previous eight overall. The under, though, has come through of late in this rivalry, hitting five times in the last six games overall and 9-4 in the last 13 meetings at MSG.
There are few teams as well-equipped to deal with facing a trap game as much as the Raptors. While the bench mob did not put up their usual offensive numbers, they contributed 26 points. Coach Dwane Casey trusts them; the four primary reserves (C. J. Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam) all logged 16 or more minutes and kept the team in balance.
That quartet, along with Malcolm Miller, likely will get some extended play after Friday night's hard-fought win, and the Knicks are the perfect opponent for the to make sure they maintain their rhythm and efficiency.
If New York could channel one stretch of play from this season down the stretch, it would be the 8:13 span in which they reeled off 28 straight points against the Raptors in their November 22 victory. Hardaway and Kanter combined for 18 of them in what has turned out to be the high-water mark of the Knicks' season.
After having their frontcourt torched by the Bucks, New York's backcourt will be over-matched by Lowry and DeRozan in this contest. While the Raptors are not a great 3-point shooting team by percentage; they have made 34.4 percent of their attempts during this seven-game winning streak and have averaged 12.6 makes in that span.
It may take two or three quarters for the Raptors to hit their stride, but look for them to extend their winning streak to eight with a 106-93 victory.
The game will be televised locally on MSG Network and nationally in Canada on SportsNet One and SN/SN1. Tip-off time is 1 pm EDT.
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