The Raptors avoid another collapse behind Scottie Barnes’ brilliance against the Knicks

The Raptors avoid another collapse behind Scottie Barnes' brilliance against the Knicks
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Scottie Barnes made sure the Raptors didn't suffer another embarrassing defeat against the Knicks.  (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

A deep sigh of relief came over Scotiabank Arena on Sunday as the Toronto Raptors won 125-116 over the New York Knicks.

It didn’t come easy and it once again looked like they would give up a double-digit lead for the third straight contest. Toronto opened hot and went up by 17 at the end of the first, but defensive lapses let the Knicks back into the game, as they took the lead in the third quarter on a 12-0 run.

With the matchup tied 86-86 going into the fourth, head coach Nick Nurse took a risk. He put his stars in Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, which has often proved costly for the Raptors. What followed was a pleasant surprise at Scotiabank Arena, which for the first time all season was not sold out – perhaps a sign of how little hope remains for the season.

Instead, it was a lineup of Juancho Hernangomez, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes who drove the Raptors forward. They outscored the Knicks 26-10 in the first 7:15 of the final frame, helping Toronto build a double-digit lead, which would ultimately translate into a win.

Barnes led the charge by getting teammates involved, as Trent scored big and finished with eight of his 24 points in the fourth quarter. Nurse applauded Barnes’ ability to call screens for Trent for different actions, direct traffic, pressure the team on the break, all while making simple passes — with perhaps the extreme being his “74-yard touchdown.”

“Coach tonight gave [Scottie] lineup there in the fourth and he was able to take advantage and run the show,” VanVleet said after the game, after finishing with a team-high 28 points.

“He has continued to grow as a player, and the sky is obviously the limit.”

Barnes said he was looking to just play with a “high IQ” by attacking the same openings he found against the Knicks, when he finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

For anything that didn’t work, Achiuwa and Boucher cleaned up the glass with offensive boards for what Nurse calls “high-spirit plays.” The center duo eventually finished with a combined 26 points and 18 rebounds as it marked the second successful start for Achiuwa.

On defense, that lineup slowed the Knicks down by “flying around the zone” and limiting second chances.

The role players stepped up meant no Raptor logged over 40 minutes, ending a four-game hitting streak for Siakam, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 33 minutes. It was their rebounding ability that Nurse says allowed him to run with that lineup for so long, as they limited the Knicks to one offensive rebound in the fourth, after they finished the first three frames with 13.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Raptors and helped them bounce back from a tough loss Saturday against the Boston Celtics, where they gave up an 11-point lead, and Thursday’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, where they squandered an 18-point lead. Giving up leads has been a recurring trend for the Raptors this season, as they now sit 11th in the Eastern Conference at 21-27, their worst 48-game stretch since the 2012-13 season.

Unfortunately, it seemed like the Raptors could have been headed for a similar collapse on Sunday. They opened the first quarter with arguably one of their best frames of the season, outscoring the Knicks 37-22 behind a red-hot shooting display.

They kept the momentum going, though Julius Randle and RJ Barrett combined for 15 points on 50 percent shooting in the first quarter, which included this thunderous slam.

The second period looked more like a battle, with both teams combining for nine turnovers. The madness continued in the third, until the Knicks took off. With about three minutes left in that frame, the Knicks went on a 12-0 run to take their first lead since the first. Seven of those points came as second chances.

The Barnes-led lineup finally stopped the bleeding to regain momentum and also slowed down Randle, who finished with two points in the final frame. When asked after the game how the Raptors can weather these types of storms, VanVleet chalked it up to the nature of the NBA.

“You can’t really focus on the lead in the NBA. If you watch enough games, you understand, you know it’s up and down, you know it’s hard to play with a lead,” he said.

“When we close out games, we can do a little bit better. And you really don’t want to be on the wrong side of a run to end the game, you know, like in Minnesota. We’re playing pretty good basketball, not great. And definitely not championship-caliber somehow, but we are getting better.”

After the win, the Raptors now aim for a seven-game road trip before returning to Scotiabank Arena on the verge of the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline.

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