TORONTO — David Fizdale may not pore over the injury reports of his players, but he does work his way through scouting reports and game tapes. So he had a pretty good idea of what was to come Saturday afternoon at Scotiabank Arena.
He spoke hopefully of the competitive nature of his team before the game, but he also acknowledged the reality — that the Knicks were taking on a Raptors squad that quickly has become one of the elite teams in the NBA after an offseason makeover.
He saw his team’s competitiveness on display as the Knicks hung around behind Tim Hardaway Jr., who scored 19 of his 27 points in the first half. But talent wins out, and the Raptors have it in waves. After coasting through the first 30 minutes, the Raptors turned the game into a blowout, 128-112.
“I just think that last year they were a 60-win team basically, knocking on the door,” Fizdale said. “You add champions, an MVP candidate, to this team, more versatility to the team. You’ve got to really count them in on having a shot to get there.
“Barring any injury or anything like that, this team is going to be in the mix. They are legitimate. They’re tough, they compete hard, they share the ball, they’re fast, athletic. They’ve got all the ingredients. So it’s just a matter of can they keep it together, keep connecting. I definitely respect it.”
The Raptors fired last season’s coach, Dwane Casey, shortly before he was named NBA Coach of the Year and then traded away DeMar DeRozan, who finished eighth in the MVP voting. In their place they put Nick Nurse, a journeyman who had worked around the world before finally landing an NBA head-coaching assignment, and Kawhi Leonard, a short-term gamble after he sat out nearly the entire 2017-18 season with the Spurs.
The result is an NBA-best 12-1 start. Nurse became the first since the Nets’ Lawrence Frank in 2004 to win at least 12 of his first 13 games as an NBA head coach.
Leonard (12 points) shot just 2-for-7 and Kyle Lowry (10 points) was 3-for-6, but the Raptors showed off their depth. Pascal Siakam scored 23 points despite attempting only seven field goals; he hit six of them, including three from beyond the arc. Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench.
“They’re a tough cover,” Fizdale said. “When they go to the bench, it keeps coming at you. A lot of speed, a lot of skill, a lot of shooting. Well-coached group. But it’s good for us. This is a good lesson for us going up against the No. 1 team in the East on their turf. I thought we really competed hard. But we didn’t do the things necessary to beat a good team on the road.”
Enes Kanter had 15 points and 15 rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench for the Knicks.
Although the Raptors shot 2-for-11 and had six turnovers in the first four minutes, the Knicks led by only a point, an ominous sign. By halftime, the Raptors had converted 59 percent from the floor and built a 64-53 lead.
“They were up 10, 11 to start the half and we cut it to three in that third quarter,” Hardaway said. “There’s no excuses. We didn’t look like a young team when we got back in the game. Just have to see what works and go out there and continue to do what got you back into the game. And we didn’t do that.”
If Fizdale thought this was tough, there was the news that another team in the Knicks’ division had added a star, as the 76ers obtained Jimmy Butler in a trade with the Timberwolves. With the 76ers and Butler reportedly intent on making this a long-term relationship, it would remove another potential free agent from the market next summer, when the Knicks hope to land a star.
“You know what, this team that we’re playing is so scary to watch on film that I haven’t even had time to process that,” Fizdale said before the game. “I can’t think about that right now. I’ve got Kawhi Leonard and those guys, Kyle Lowry, sitting in that other locker room, so I’m focused on that.”