Another beast in the East
Like every working coach of every team in the NBA East, David Fizdale of the New York Knicks fielded the question: What did he make of another all-NBA talent landing in the conference Saturday afternoon?
That’s when news broke that Jimmy Butler’s reality-show circus act of a trade demand had finally come to a merciful conclusion. Most of two months since Butler asked out of Minnesota, he was shipped to Philadelphia in a deal that transformed one of the East’s top handful of teams into an undeniably better one. Barely a month into its post-LeBron James era, the East looks more formidable than it’s been in years.
But Fizdale, in the lead-up to Sunday’s Raptors-Knicks game at Scotiabank Arena, said he didn’t possess the bandwidth to process the implications of Butler’s move.
Fizdale was too preoccupied, he said, with Toronto’s NBA team. He called the Raptors a “powerhouse.” He deemed them “scary to watch on film.” And the view didn’t get better once the game began. This was no Picasso. But Toron- to, season-high 14 1⁄2- point favourites in Las Vegas, used their starters sparingly and still covered the spread, 128-112. That’s their 12th win in 13 tries.
“They’ve got all the ingredients,” Fizdale said of the Raptors. “They’re tough. They compete hard. They share the ball. They’re fast, athletic … It’s just a matter — can they keep it together, keep connecting? But I definitely respect them.”
This is the kind of genuflecting that’s been coming from all over the U.S. in these opening few weeks of the NBA season. The Raptors are the NBA’s best team by record and possibly its deepest by talent pool. Example from Saturday: Reserve forward OG Anunoby had an impressively efficient afternoon, scoring 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field. On a lot of nights, that might have been a story. But efficiency is a team specialty. So Anunoby’s stat line was bettered by backup centre Jonas Valanciunas, who had 19 points on eight field-goal attempts. And the game’s PhD in economy went to Pascal Siakam, who had a career-high 23 points on seven shots from the field, six of which were successful, including 3-of-4 from three-point range. Siakam, by the way, is the rare non-centre in this
rotation who supposedly can’t shoot. The Knicks left him open, and he suggested he can.
Still, it’s far too early to suggest the Raptors are peerless favourites to make their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. The Milwaukee Bucks came into Saturday’s games boasting an offence rated second in the league behind only the twotime defending champions in Golden State. Milwaukee also had the top-rated defence. The Celtics have lost three of their past four games and clearly need to sort out some ballsharing issues with the return from injury of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. But coming into Saturday, Boston still ranked fourth in the league in defensive rating.
And in Philadelphia, which shipped Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick to Minnesota for Butler and Justin Patton, optimism abounds. Adding Butler, a four-time all-star, to a team that won 52 games a season ago figures to make them a factor, even if there’ll be challenges integrating another alpha male into a rotation that already includes Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
“It certainly brings a really good player into our gym a few more times, so we look forward to that,” said Nurse, speaking before the game of the Butler trade. “I mean, listen. I think the East is a lot better than maybe people give it credit for.”
On Saturday Fizdale offered compelling outsider’s testimony on Toronto’s bona fides, and specifically those of Kawhi Leonard. In a previous run as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, Fizdale watched Leonard interrupt the Heat’s bid for a third straight championship in 2014 with a performance that earned Leonard his only championship ring and an NBA Finals MVP. And it was only back in 2017, on Leonard’s most recent run through the NBA post-season, that Fizdale, then head coach in Memphis, continued to marvel at Leonard’s unique dominance.
“I’m gonna check the rule book and find out if robots are allowed to play in the NBA. I think (Leonard) bleeds antifreeze,” Fizdale famously said at the time.
Speaking Saturday, Fizdale smiled at the memory.
“I still have bad dreams from the playoffs in Memphis where there was nothing I could do against the guy,” Fizdale said.
On Saturday, Leonard’s sec- ond start in a row after taking a couple of games off with a jammed foot, he wasn’t his usual cyborg self. He looked human. This was his first game as a Raptor wherein he didn’t shoot at least 40 per cent from the field, going a blasé 2-for-7 for 12 points. This was his first game as a Raptor without a three-pointer, going 0-for-2 from deep. And none of it mattered. The Knicks, still without the services of Kristaps Porzingis (recovering from a torn ACL), are a clear-the-bench-early kind of opponent. Leonard played just 23 minutes. Ten Raptors played at least 18 minutes.
And even after an off-night, Leonard was still shooting 48 per cent from the field, 42 per cent from three-point range and 88 per cent from the line while averaging 24 points a game.
“Man, he’s just gotten better every year. And he just keeps adding and adding,” Fizdale said of Leonard. “You know, he’s a class-act kid that really competes the right way. And he’s a scary, scary dude.”
In other words, the East got a little bit better Saturday. The Raptors got a lot better this past summer, and they’ve got five months to continue their new-look metamorphosis.
“Last year they were a 60-win team, basically, knocking on the door. You add champions (like Leonard and former Spur Danny Green), MVP candidates to this team, more versatility to this team. You’ve got to really count them in on having a shot to get there,” Fizdale said. “Barring any injury or anything like that, this team is going to be in the mix. They are legitimate.”
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, centre, scored just 12 points on 2-for-7 shooting on Saturday, but Toronto put up 128 points due to its balanced strength.
Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas, right, had 19 points on only eight shots from the floor on Saturday, and he wasn’t even the most efficient Raptors scorer.