The last time the Knicks ventured across the border to Toronto, RJ Barrett had gotten tickets for approximately 1,000 guests who crowded into Scotiabank Arena.
On Sunday afternoon, because of COVID-19, there was an attendance limit of 1,000 for the entire arena, with the Raptors limiting it to just a handful of friends and family.
It wasn’t the number of fans that concerned Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau but the number of players he had available. His team arrived missing a trio of starters, three centers and their three primary playmakers as the NBA’s health and safety protocols along with troublesome injuries reduced the team to a skeleton crew.
Blaming their 120-105 loss to the Raptors on absences of players or fans, though, wouldn’t do justice to what the Knicks put on the floor, which was hardly the sort of effort that would appease their demanding coach.
The loss dropped the Knicks (17-20) behind Toronto and into 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
This was a struggle from beginning to end. With Julius Randle, Kemba Walker and Mitchell Robinson among the absent pieces, the Knicks needed to perform at their best. Instead, they were sloppy and outhustled by Toronto.
"We have to have the belief we can win with everyone on this roster playing well," Thibodeau said. "Get in there and get the job done. That’s it. If we rebound, defend and keep our turnovers down, we’re in position to win. Then you need to make shots down the stretch. There were good sequences — not enough of them."
The loss was the Knicks’ second straight after losing Randle to the health and safety protocols, and in both games, his absence may have put his value to the team on display more than anything he has done when playing this season.
While he has not performed up to the level he did last season, the Knicks have looked lost offensively without him, and their defense was abysmal. The outcry on social media to sit him has been revealed for what it is.
"The thing is, it’s the day and age of social media, and that’s what social media is," Thibodeau said. "You try not to pay attention to it, because it’s really meaningless, whether it’s praise or criticism. It doesn’t really matter. Really, what matters is what we think. And so we know how important it is. But it’s like the backup quarterback. Everyone thinks the backup should start until he has to start."
The Knicks had to play small without Randle, Robinson and Nerlens Noel, but the hope that it would speed up their game didn’t come to fruition. The Raptors, also playing small, ran by them and through them.
Evan Fournier had 20 points and the Knicks got 19 from Barrett, but he had only six in the first half as the game got away. In his second career start, Obi Toppin played 45:11 and finished with 19 points, which matched his career high set earlier this season in Toronto. He also had a career-high six assists.
Miles McBride, Alec Burks and Immanuel Quickley all took turns, but none could slow down Fred VanVleet, who scored 19 of his 35 points in the Raptors’ 40-point third quarter and then sat out the fourth. The Raptors had been shorthanded, too, but they had their top eight rotation players available for the first time all season.
"It’s not just Julius," Fournier said. "We have three starters down. That’s a lot. But that’s the situation we’re in. I think every team has been through that, and it’s not easy to handle. But we’re in that situation. What can we do better to make the most of it?
"Obviously, the margin of error is smaller and so we have to play better, period. All the little stuff — the execution part, the rebounding — that’s where we have to be absolutely great at."
Notes & quotes: Walker sat out his second straight game with a sore left knee, which had made him a late scratch Friday. Thibodeau did not believe it was related to playing back-to-back games earlier in the road trip.