The fourth quarter, so often a a bane to the Toronto Raptors (12-15) in recent history, seems to have become a key strength for the club. Their ability to bounce back from early deficits and show resilience was on display once again on Friday night in New York, as a 29-14 fourth quarter run handily erased what had been a 12-point Knicks' lead and spurred the visitors to a 95-83 win. Much like the early season results of the ACC co-resident Maple Leafs, the Raps seem to be emboldened to know that they are capable of rallying and, thus, are not deterred by early deficits.
Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry all stood out for Toronto, as the club relied on a rebounding edge (50-42), some free throw prowess (23-33, registering more makes than the Knicks had attempts) and heavy use of the three-ball (10-28 from long distance) to overcome an early deficit, a struggling bench and an on-his-game Andrea Bargnani, who made just six of his 17 shots, but scored a team-best 18 points while pulling down 12 rebounds (his season-high last year was nine) and blocking two shots.
The seeds for fourth quarter dominance were planted late in the third quarter, when the Raptors held the Knicks to just three made shots over the final five minutes of the frame while going on a 12-7 run. Once the fourth got underway, the Raps sustained their defensive intensity (they held New York to 12 points on 5-18 shooting and forced four turnovers) and upped their offensive punch (29 points on 9-17 shooting and 9-14 from the free throw line). Leading the way were DeMar DeRozan, who scored eight of his game-high 25 in the final 12 minutes, John Salmons, who matched his teammate's fourth quarter total and Valanciunas, who had seven points in the fourth.
Valanciunas' Big Night
Against New York, Valanciunas was about as big a force as a player can be in taking just 11 shots. He made seven of those shots, finishing with 16 points. But he also pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds (including seven on the offensive glass) and neutralized the presence of the Knicks' Tyson Chandler (seven points, six rebounds and a game-worst -22).
Speaking of Valanciunas...
This has no real bearing on last night's game, but the Raptors' big man rotation is quietly rounding into one of the East's best, albeit largely due to a lack of viable alternatives. Thanks to health (Raps starters Valanciunas and Amir Johnson have both played in all 27 of the team's games this year) and new-found depth (the presence of Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough has made the big man rotation tough to crack, even for reliable vet Chuck Hayes), the Raptors' front court is a decided strength for the team. Compare that to an Eastern Conference big man landscape littered with injuries (Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Nerlens Noel), suspensions (Andrew Bynum) and ineffectiveness (poor Chandler, having to absorb the defensive miscues of Bargnani and Amare Stoudemire), and you have a real asset for Toronto.
Not Much Help from the Bench
Beyond some late production from Salmons and Hansbrough's effective seven rebounds in 13 minutes, it was an off night for the Raptors reserves. Thanks to some poor shooting (6-25, including 2-15 shooting from Hansbrough, Patterson and Greivis Vazquez), they were outscored 26-21 by a Knicks' bench forced to absorb the absence of Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigoni.
Need more evidence that any possibility of tanking is firmly out the window? The Raptors currently lead the Atlantic despite having played the league's sixth-toughest schedule to date.
We'll get an in-person look at the Knicks tonight, but it's hard to find many positives when your star player is out, Bargnani is your No. 1 scoring option and Stoudemire, who is owed about $45 million between this year and next, is being outplayed by Kenyon Martin. Still, in spite of all of that, the Anthony and Chandler-led team can't be completely counted out and is probably Toronto's biggest threat in the Atlantic.
The Raps are back home for the tail end of the home-and-home tonight vs New York (7:00pm, TSN2), with a two-game sweep really having the potential to send an emphatic message.
Prediction: Raps 97, Knicks 89 (13-6 this season)