Knicks forward Julius Randle tries to work betwee Raptors guard Fred VanVleet...

Knicks forward Julius Randle tries to work betwee Raptors guard Fred VanVleet and forward Stanley Johnson during the first half of an NBA game on Dec. 31, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. Credit: AP/Chris O'Meara

There’s little doubt it’s been a strange NBA season.

One sure measure of that is the performance of the two teams that met Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. The Toronto Raptors and the Knicks this season look the opposite of what they have been for the last decade or so.

The Raptors, just two years away from having won the NBA title, entered Sunday night two games out of the 10th and final playoff spot after losing six of their last nine games. The Raptors have been a fixture in the playoffs since the 2012-13 season, the last time they didn’t make it. Since then, they’ve finished no lower than fourth in the Eastern Conference, including last year where they got to the second round of the playoffs despite the departure of Kawhi Leonard.

The Knicks, by contrast, have exceeded everyone’s expectations and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13 when they lost to the Indiana Pacers in the second round. Led by their tenacious defense under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau and the emergence of Julius Randle as an All-Star caliber player, the Knicks entered Sunday night five games ahead of the 11th place Raptors.

Barring an utter collapse, the Knicks have a very good shot of finishing in top 10, though it likely will be in one of the bottom four spots meaning they have to compete in the short play-in tournament. Most Knicks fans, however, will happily take that accomplishment especially considering that their team was so bad last season that it wasn’t even invited to the COVID bubble in Orlando to finish out the season.

As of Sunday, only five of the Knicks’ remaining 19 games were against teams not currently in the playoff picture. In many ways, that magnified the importance of the Toronto matchup.

The Raptors entered Sunday’s game having won four games in their last 19. Though he has been playing better of late, Pascal Siakam has struggled most the season to find the All-Star form he displayed last season.

Still Thibodeau said it’s unfair to judge a franchise or team by their struggles this season.

"This season has been unusual and the same can be said for last season," he said. "They’ve had a number of injuries, but it’s a deep and talented team. They put up 87 points in the first half of their game [against the Cavaliers Saturday night]. They had a number of their players out for that particular game.

"So, you have to be ready for them. They post a number of different problems. They’re tough. They’re long, their athletic. They can shoot and can put it all on the floor. So you have to come into the game and be ready to do multiple things that require multiple effort, great concentration. They are a gamble-strip type team. They can turn you over and they get in the open floor and they are very dangerous."

Immanuel Quickley, who scored 20 points in the Knicks overtime win over Memphis on Friday, said the Knicks cannot overlook anyone at this point.

"Obviously, we know what they bring to the table," Quickley said. "They just went to the championship a couple of years ago and won it. They have a championship pedigree, championship team, coaching and players. We have to bring our best effort. I feel like we’re a great team as well when we’re kicking on all cylinders. Defensively, we’re great running in transition, playing together. So we just want to do all those things that got us to that point and sticking with that."


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