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3 key takeaways from Raptors’ quality victory vs. Knicks

Raptors Takeaways, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Raptors, Knicks

The Toronto Raptors (read: Huskies) and New York Knickerbockers played (one of) the first NBA game on this day 75 years ago. And goodness, did both teams deliver quite an anniversary performance, with threes raining down from the heavens, snapping mesh like the clashing of cymbals.

Bing bong!

Ultimately, Toronto came away on top in arguably its best victory of the season, which saw it move to 3-0 on the road and add to a now four-game win streak without the likes of Scottie Barnes (who sat out with a sprained thumb) and, of course, Pascal Siakam.

Here are three key Raptors takeaways from the night that was.

Raptors Takeaways

3. Khem Birch is solid as oak

It has been said, but after Monday night’s performance, it bears repeating: Khem Birch needs to start.

On yet another night in which Precious Achiuwa struggled in chaotic fashion, Birch stepped in to seamlessly ease his units with a calming and commanding aura, affecting the game in a way that raw box score stats don’t do justice.

While he had six points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in 31 minutes, Birch was also a game-high +20. He was part of the OG Anunoby-led bench lineup that ended the second quarter on an 18-7 run, and he started the third in place of Achiuwa.

For what it’s worth, the Raptors’ initial starting lineup which featured Achiuwa ended the night with a net rating of -9.4.

That same starting group with Birch finished with a net rating of 35.4.

“I feel like the perception, just ‘cause last year I was averaging a lot of points, people think I’m having a down year or whatever,” Birch told reporters postgame. “But I feel stress-free. I’ve always been a guy who just wants to make winning plays and I don’t care about the box score.”

Birch simply knows where to be and how to leverage the most out of his low-usage role while staying within the flow of the game. He attacked the offensive boards (he had four), set solid screens, was active protecting the rim, kept the ball moving on offense, and even made an impressive cut here, a savvy pass there.

“He had a run of offensive rebounds that are really like spirit-lifters—they keep the spirit high when a guy’s just outworking them like that,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “There are lots of things: He was screening well, passed okay, he had a good game for six points.”

At this point in his career, he’s a safer and sturdier player than Achiuwa, who in all likelihood could benefit from coming off the pine. Nurse mentioned earlier this season that the starting center position would be fluid, and it’s at least time to take an extended look at switching up the status quo.

2. OG Anunoby is becoming a superstar right before our eyes

The preseason was not a dream.

This is the Anunoby many were anticipating heading into the regular season. On a night where the Raptors were generally lacking weapons, he arrived with a career performance, dropping 36 points, six rebounds, and two assists on a 59.8 true shooting percentage over the course of a dominant 41 minutes.

But it wasn’t that Anunoby had a particularly hot night—no, in fact, it was quite the opposite. Rather, it was him scoring at high volume on good efficiency, which is perhaps a more exciting outcome.

His shot diet was a smorgasbord of mouth-watering options: Catch-and-shoot jumpers, midrange step-backs, euro-step dunks in transition, attacks of closeouts, pick-and-pops, alley-oop finishes as a lob threat, pull-up triples in isolation, and power finishes beneath the rim.

“Probably just adjusting to how I’m being guarded,”Anunoby said when asked about his improvements over the last few games. “Watching film, knowing where people are going to be, where people are going to double and then just reviewing shots, seeing if I’m rushing it, if I’m sticking my landing. Just reviewing the film.”

In every way imaginable, Anunoby found a way to score, leading bench units and showing out with the Raptors’ starters.

“He’s working and we’re working on developing a lot more offense and a lot more opportunities for him,” Nurse said.

And this is without even mentioning the ball screens he set, his ever-improving relocating, and his usual jagged defense.

If there was ever any lingering skepticism that Anunoby may not have the right stuff to make a legitimate star turn, Monday night’s game should’ve put that thought to rest.

1. No subs in the third

Nurse decided to make a statement to the Raptors bench (aside from Birch, who, again, started in place of Achiuwa) during the third quarter.

Toronto got off to a hot start thanks to Birch’s presence, and they quickly snuffed out the four-point halftime lead of New York and ran rampant for the remainder of the quarter, outscoring the Knicks 38-22 via a flurry of long-range lasers.

Never once during this time did Nurse opt to make a substitution.

“Sometimes you gotta sacrifice,” Birch said. “Say someone else was doing well like that and I was on the bench, I wouldn’t complain, either. I’d let them keep rocking, keep rolling. That’s what coach Nurse does sometimes, and I appreciate that. Sometimes some coaches have a set rotation but coach Nurse goes off a feel for the game.”

According to Sportradar (via Blake Murphy of Fan 590), the Raptors are the first team this season not to make a single substitution for an entire quarter. They also haven’t done it as a franchise since 2017-18.

“It surprises me that we’ve never done that before,” Nurse added. “I mean, those guys were just on an incredible, tied together roll, and I was thinking about [making a substitution] a couple times but I wasn’t thinking about it that much.

“Most of the talk about the last three minutes was, we’ve got three minutes to get to the quarter and we’ll figure it out at the quarter break. Those guys were really playing hard and scoring and making shots and defending, so no sense in breaking that up.””

It’s obviously not a viable option for long-term use (especially with Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. getting banged up in the process). But for one night, it worked out.