It was a good news / bad news night for the Toronto Raptors (46-33), who lost 108-100 to the hungrier New York Knicks and fell back to the No. 4 seed in the East, but also clinched the Atlantic division title and secured no worse than the No. 4 after the Brooklyn Nets fell to the Atlanta Hawks. Still, Friday night's performance showed the Raps that plenty of work remains ahead of the start of the postseason.
Against the Knicks, Toronto's shooting struggles (30-76, 39.5%) were exacerbated by defensive woes that allowed NY to shoot 29-49 (59.2%) from inside the three-point line (compared to 15-43 / 34.9% for the Raps for the same distance) and get to the charity stripe 36 times (they made 32, with Carmelo Anthony's 13-14 leading the charge).
The back court of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry combined for 51 points and 22 attempts from the line while Jonas Valanciunas posted a monster 14-point, 21-rebound performance, but Lowry also happened to be the only Raptor starter to make half of his shots. Instead, poor shooting by the likes of DeRozan (6-18), Valanciunas (5-14) and Terrence Ross (4-12) prevented the home side from matching their visitors offensively.
Despite Dwane Casey's protestations to the contrary, the second Atlantic division title in franchise history is well worth celebrating (even if it does come in a division with a collective .426 winning percentage). It seems so recent that the NBA postseason was just a pipe dream, something that Toronto might have had some meager hope of squeaking into as a No. 7 or 8 seed in a weak conference. It's hard not to notice that the division win comes thanks to a loss by the Nets, the prohibitive division favourites who have shown plenty of chinks in their armour this season, and on the same night as Toronto hosted the Knicks, Brooklyn's expectant division rivals who have grossly underperformed and are life and death to reach the postseason. Now, Raptor fans (myself included) are having fretful discussions over the No. 3 seed vs the No. 4, a Nets-or-Wizards first round series and even the specter of a second round tilt against the Heat or Pacers. That being said, I'm glad to see that the Raps were hardly in a celebratory mood last night.
Stumped by Shump
Iman Shumpert isn't an elite NBA defender, but he certainly looked like it at times on Friday night. In playing just 27 minutes, Shumpert looked to be just about everywhere on the floor, collecting two steals, goading many of the 14 Raptor turnovers and forcing bad shooting nights from DeRozan and Greivis Vasquez (six points on 2-6 shooting). For DeRozan, a balanced offensive approach that has included career high assist numbers and free throw attempts has helped mask a recent stretch of poor shooting in which he has shot over 50% in just two of his past 20 games. If, as things currently stand, the Raps come up against Brooklyn in round one, they will have to contend with strong perimeter defenders in Paul Pierce and former Raptor Alan Anderson.
Other than JV's 21 rebounds, it wasn't a great night to be a Toronto Raptors big man. Amir Johnson had a quiet return to the lineup, going scoreless and picking up three rebounds in 17 minutes of what was an easing-back-in effort to test his sore ankle. Meanwhile, Patrick Patterson picked up five fouls and a team-worst -18 plus/minus mark over just 15 minutes. Neither Tyler Hansbrough or Chuck Hayes (no points, two rebounds, three fouls between them) could get much going in limited duty. On the other side of the court, Amar'e Stoudemire put up 24 points on 10-14 shooting, 11 rebounds and a +14, while Tyson Chandler added seven rebounds and a +9 mark.
Spotted at the ACC on Friday night: soon-to-be No. 1 pick (???) Andrew Wiggins.
The chase for the No. 8 spot does not look good for the New York Knicks. Two games back of Atlanta with three remaining, the Knicks have a fairly tough slate of remaining games (vs Chicago, @ Brooklyn, vs Toronto), all of which they have to win. Meanwhile, the Hawks need to win just one of a slate that includes a season-ending visit to Milwaukee to face the 14-win Bucks. If the No. 8 seed isn't decided before then, it's hard to imagine that it won't be that night.
With three games remaining and just the No. 3 seed to play for, the Raps visit the Detroit Pistons on Sunday afternoon (3:30pm, TSN). In scoreboard-watching news, the Bulls will be at MSG on Sunday night to play the Knicks.
Prediction: Raps 107, Pistons 101 (42-18 this season)