RJ Barrett will play his first professional game back in his home country of Canada on Wednesday night as the Knicks face the Raptors.
After an encouraging, short stretch of basketball in which the Knicks picked up a couple nice wins against the Mavs and Cavs, New York has returned to their losing ways, dropping three straight. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier for the Knicks beginning tonight against defending champion Toronto Raptors, who look formidable again this year.
After losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, the Raptors were expected to significantly tail off and return to mediocrity. That has not been the case this season. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and company find themselves in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, only a game and a half back behind the Bucks for the number one spot with a 12-4 record, including 7-0 at Scotiabank Arena.
The defending champs under Nick Nurse are number one in the NBA in three-point percentage (39.3%), number three in free throw percentage (81.9%), and have done a nice job defensively, ranking sixth in Defensive Rating, per NBA Stats. Toronto plays well-rounded, fundamentally sound ball.
Pascal Siakam, after winning Most Improved Player last season, looks like he could be the first to win the award twice. The 25-year-old has become even more of a problem for opposing defenses this year, averaging 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and four assists per game, per NBA Stats.
Fred VanVleet, coming off a clutch NBA Finals performance, has stepped up big time in the absence of Kyle Lowry, putting up 18.5 points and 7.7 assists per game this year, per Basketball-Reference.
Although Toronto lacks superstar talent on their roster, they are an extremely well-coached operation, with many guys who can step up and contribute on any given night.
After missing the Knicks’ last game against the Nets with an illness, R.J. Barrett’s status is up in the air this evening. If Barrett is able to give it a go, which seems likely (he was upgraded to “probable” a few moments ago), it will be his first professional game in his home country, with many family and friends in attendance.
RJ Barrett (illness), Kevin Knox II (contused left quad) and Frank Ntilikina (contused left quad and sore groin) have been upgraded to probable for tonight’s game at Toronto.
— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) November 27, 2019
Barrett has made it clear how excited he is to return to the Mississauga/Toronto area and compete, telling the New York Post, “I can’t miss tomorrow night, I gotta go play for everybody I love.”
The 19-year-old also said he will be wearing a “little something” in support of his Canadian heritage, but opted to not disclose what it will be.
Hopefully Barrett’s homecoming will give him some extra juice, as he has come back to earth after his scorching hot start to his rookie season. While Frank Ntilikina (quad and groin) and Kevin Knox (quad) were upgraded to probable as well, the Knicks need R.J. Barrett to have a great game if they want any shot at emerging victorious.
Really love this shot for RJ pic.twitter.com/VP5oEE2GsM
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 24, 2019
R.J. will likely have to do most of his work in the mid-range and behind the arc, as seen in the above clip. The Raptors are a stingy defensive team in the paint, ranking fourth in points allowed.
Marcus Morris was signed primarily to bring toughness and defense to the Knicks, but has been surprisingly good offensively. Morris is putting up 19.3 points per game, which would shatter his career high for a season if he keeps up this pace.
Mook has scored 20 points in each of the last four games, and looks to be in a nice groove as the Knicks head into a difficult segment of their schedule. Luckily for the Knicks, Morris has been a better player on the road, averaging more points and grabbing more rebounds away from MSG this season, per ESPN Stats. If this trend continues and R.J. can show out in his home country, the Knicks have a chance to score with the Toronto Raptors.
Anticipate an extra fired-up Knicks team this evening with their rookie returning home. Hopefully New York can ride that energy to an upset victory over one of the best teams in the East.